Monti, Berlusconi begin campaign by taking swipes at each other


The new year was barely rung in before past and present Italian prime ministers, Mario Monti and Silvio Berlusconi, launched their first broadsides at one another in a general election campaign that already looks sharp and nasty.

Mr Monti, in theory, starts off at a disadvantage, having never previously run for office. Perhaps more importantly, unlike his wealthy rival, he is not the owner of three commercial TV channels.

However, the reserved, understated former European Commissioner is learning fast, showing himself ready to tackle his rival on the media tycoon’s favourite terrain, radio and television.

Accused of incoherence

In a lengthy state radio interview on Wednesday, Mr Monti accused Mr Berlusconi of incoherence given that until a number of days ago, he was still offering to withdraw his own candidacy for prime minister at the February elections if Mr Monti would accept the leadership of the centre-right coalition. Mr Berlusconi immediately accused Mr Monti of dishonesty in that he had switched roles, moving from a neutral technocrat to a coalition leader.

Mr Monti, however, counter-attacked in another long interview on state TV’s major breakfast programme yesterday. Asked to comment on Mr Berlusconi’s suggestion that he was not credible given that his 13-month technocratic government had been a “disaster”, he replied: “That is, of course, an authoritative opinion [from Mr Berlusconi] . . . made however by a person whose judgments on matters human and political in recent times have demonstrated a certain volatility.”

An opinion poll last night from financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore says Mr Monti’s tactics of elegant aggression appear to work. According to this poll, his (as yet unnamed) centrist formation could return a 23.3 per cent share of the vote, higher than Mr Berlusconi’s PDL party on 21.8 per cent while, as expected, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) tops the poll on 36.2 per cent.

Given those numbers, Mr Monti and the PD may yet need one another. Mr Monti suggested yesterday that the PD leadership should “silence” leftist extremists in its ranks. PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani responded by saying that, “with all due respect”, the PD does not “silence” anyone.