Mario Monti differentiated himself from Italy’s traditional elite, in a recent television advert, saying: “I am entering politics to give our children a future. With 20 years of promises and bad governance, the old ways have placed Italy in danger. They called on me to take decisions for which they did not have the courage.”
In November 2011, Italy felt that its political course had to change if it was to avert bankruptcy. So it called an economist to form a technocratic government. This, by definition, would seek to apply scientific methods to solving problems.
Mario Monti, twice a former European Commissioner, first with the Internal Market brief, then Competition, faced having to reduce Italy’s borrowing costs, which had grown dangerously – to nearly 7%.
This level, the week before he stepped in, had forced a bailout of Portugal, Ireland and Greece.
Having replaced Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister, Monti rang in a 20-billion euro plan for cutbacks.
Monti said: “With these measures we have also thought of the pressing need to create the conditions for growth in Italy.”
Budget cuts would run in tandem with higher taxes. One of the hardest reforms to impose on Italians was for their pensions. It even moved the Minister of Social Affairs to tears as she announced the measures. She choked on a word – simply couldn’t get it out.
Monti said: “I believe she meant to say ‘sacrifice’, as you have understood.”
The minimum retirement age was raised by one year for men, to 66, and two years for women, to 62 – then for them also, in 2018, to 66. The time during which people pay into state pensions was raised from 40 to 42 years for men and to 41 years for women.
Italians were revolted by the medicine being fed to them. Unemployment was at a record high of 11.2%. After prolonged economic stagnation, the country was experiencing the longest recession in 20 years. In 2012, GDP fell by 2.2%.
Monti’s popularity rating suffered with a majority of Italians. Where it had been 70%, it dived to 30%.
And yet the rumours were confirmed: even with the embittered public opinion of him over his austerity policies, Monti would run in the election. The technocrat was becoming a politician.
Where the only backing for Monti seemed to come from the markets and European partners, the man dubbed ‘the Professor’ acknowledged the pressures on Italian businesses and took the centre ground, to criticism he had lost his status as an impartial rescuer.
And his predecessor Berlusconi re-surfaced, saying he would be a candidate in the legislative elections once again.
The billionaire campaigner par excellence burnished his credentials as a master of popular communication and promised to drop the property tax Monti had raised.
On style points, many people felt Monti was clearly at a disadvantage. Yet the Professor persevered with his message about the centre-right Berlusconi.
Monti said: “My predecessor – and he believes he will also be my successor – continues to make promises, trying to buy Italians’ votes with their own money.”
Monti surprised many when he also attacked his centre-left rival, the candidate of the Democratic Party renowned for his politeness, Pier Luigi Bersani, who had supported the austerity measures of the Monti government.
Monti said: “Bersani is in an unenviable position, because he is the leader of a coalition linked to the old politics, preferring to win by putting many parties with different programs together in his coalition, this entailing many contradictions, which hamper government.”
Monti promises in a campaign spot for his Civic Choice movement: “We have a plan: radical reforms against waste and corruption, fewer members of parliament, fewer taxes and less spending. The old parties can not reform Italy. We can. Don’t vote for the past. Vote for our future.”
As well as enjoying support from a large part of the industrial bastion of Milan, Monti can also count on firm Catholic backing, given his good relations with the Vatican.