Business elite want technocrat Monti to serve new term but public not so sure


ITALY:BUSINESS LEADERS and European officials cloistered in a beautiful lakeside resort over the weekend were in striking agreement about who should follow Mario Monti as Italian prime minister: Mario Monti.

Uncertainty about what will follow Monti’s technocrat government after elections next spring is worrying investors, who fear a new government led by elected politicians will try to tear up the painful reforms that have restored Italy’s credibility.

Among the elite at the annual Cernobbio conference, the solution seemed obvious – a “Monti-bis” or “Monti-two” government, despite the fact that the man himself has consistently denied he is available.

Outside the luxury precincts of the Grand Hotel Villa d’Este, on Lake Como, sentiments are rather different, with a majority of ordinary Italians and politicians highly suspicious of the idea.

However, bankers and businessmen inside queued up to praise the sober economist’s work, which pulled Italy back from the brink of a Greek-style debt crisis after President Giorgio Napolitano appointed him to replace scandal-plagued Silvio Berlusconi last November.

Enrico Cucchiani, chief executive of Intesa SanPaolo bank, said it was essential Monti stayed on. “I believe this is not only fundamental but extremely probable in the sense that alternative solutions could imply big risks for the country,” he said.

More than 80 per cent of the 137 bankers, businessmen and senior academics attending the meeting on the shores of Lake Como want Monti to continue his reforms next year and prevent backsliding under Italy’s squabbling politicians, according to a survey by Italian news agency Radiocor.

The atmosphere inside the hotel produced ironic headlines in some Italian newspapers, which, like politicians, accused the elites of trying to replace democracy.

“Monti-bis. It is already all decided,” said the leftwing il Fatto Quotidiano.

“The millionaires club . . . has decided. We must undercut this absurd demand that the people want to decide their future - we are in charge here,” said Berlusconi’s il Giornale under the headline: “All Monti’s slaves”.

The Cernobbio conference can be vulnerable to the accusation that the participants are a bunch of hyper-rich elitists out of touch with the real world. The gathering is in a spectacular location on the edge of a lake dotted with villas of millionaires, including that of Hollywood actor George Clooney.

This can cause resentment, even in the prosperous area of Como itself. “They don’t know what normal life is like,” said local taxi driver Giuseppe Mamone. “They are big bankers and professors, that’s all. They are not equipped to take care of ordinary citizens.”

Asked if Monti should continue after elections due by April 2013, he said: “Absolutely not. He is not a prime minister who can pursue the policies we need in Italy. He is a banker, not a politician. The next government must think about the common people and not this group of bankers as he is doing.”

Monti is actually a former academic economist and European commissioner.

A Corriere della Sera newspaper poll yesterday showed indeed that the opinion at Cernobbio was far more strongly in favour of a Monti-bis than the general population, among which the idea won only 37 per cent support.

However, the chaotic political landscape less than eight months before elections is encouraging speculation that a new government could be led, if not by Monti, then by one of his technocrat cabinet, most likely industry minister Corrado Passera.

Who will lead the two biggest parties into the election is uncertain as are the alliances that will campaign together.

Passera has recently signalled that he may have political ambitions. On Saturday he turned up at a meeting of the Catholic centrist UDC, led by Pierferdinando Casini, which some are already dubbing the Monti-bis party.

Former prime minister Romano Prodi said at Cernobbio there were circumstances in which Monti might return after the election, including the possibility that a winning party or coalition could call on him. “I am convinced if there is a deadlock, if he is asked again to give a service to the country, he will do it,” Prodi added.

“If there is a clear winner of the election, that person will be prime minister or will designate the prime minister.”

However, politicians here said Italy must return to normal democratic processes next year after the technocrat interlude.

In remarks which might worry investors, Renato Brunetta, an economics minister in Berlusconi’s last government, said at Cernobbio:

“This country is suffering a brutal recession, the poisoned fruit of policies imposed on the Monti government by Germany,” he told reporters.

“Enough of the technocrat government. The blackmail has finished. The economic policy of the Monti government must change immediately or the country will die.”

Despite such language, which is likely to become more inflammatory as the election approaches, many are sanguine about the possibility of Italy changing course. Monti’s government has tried during its short term to lock the country into reform policies aimed at cutting a huge debt and reversing a long economic stagnation.–(Reuters)