January 3, 2013 6:00 pm

Monti attacks ‘extremist’ rivals

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Italian Premier Mario Monti©AP

Throwing off his neutrality as an appointed technocrat, Mario Monti is clearly relishing his role as partisan politician, mounting an aggressive election campaign with attacks on “extremist” rivals on both left and right.

This week Mr Monti’s newly-formed centrist alliance has succeeded in setting the media agenda, forcing the mainstream parties on to the defensive for fear of losing ground among moderate voters.

Interviewed on state television on Thursday, Mr Monti noted with satisfaction the defections to his alliance of several prominent figures from both parties. “They are coming towards us,” he said.

But he also criticised “extremists” on both sides for having hindered his reform efforts in the 13 months since he was appointed prime minister.

“I believe that cutting out the extreme wings would be a good thing,” Mr Monti commented. In particular, he mentioned Stefano Fassina, the Democrats’ left-leaning economics spokesman, the main CGIL trade union federation and Nichi Vendola, leader of the allied Left Ecology Freedom party and a former communist.

Mr Monti then had a go at Silvio Berlusconi, whom he replaced as prime minister, describing him as a man of “volatile” judgment. He also criticised his centre-right People of Freedom party, particularly its economics spokesman, Renato Brunetta, for being in the sway of corporate lobbyists.

After a year of dealing with a sober and consensus-seeking technocrat, Italy’s old-guard politicians – already under pressure from various corruption scandals – have been stung by the new assertive face of Mr Monti as campaigning politician.

But by aggressively targeting his rivals, he risks drawing their fire both on to himself and his Brussels-driven reform agenda, risking heavy losses at the polls. It could also damage the prospects for a potential coalition government with the centre-left Democrats, the current frontrunners to win the election on February 25.

Mr Berlusconi, a billionaire television magnate, hit back with his own media blitz, damning Mr Monti’s time in office as a “complete failure”, while Mr Vendola slammed Mr Monti as the “arrogant expression of the bourgeoisie”.

Two opinion polls taken since Mr Monti confirmed he would enter the race a week ago show his centrist alliance winning only 12 per cent of the vote, trailing Pier Luigi Bersani’s Democrats by more than 20 points and Mr Berlusconi’s coalition by about 10. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement, a new protest force, is polling between 11 and 16 per cent, setting the stage for a fragmented parliament.

The Democrats and their leftwing allies look set to gain a majority in the lower house under an electoral system that guarantees a winning bonus for the largest coalition. But the battle for the Senate could prove to be much tighter. The outcome there could hinge on Mr Monti’s performance and whether Mr Berlusconi manages to repair his broken alliance with the rightwing Northern League.

Mr Monti, a former economics professor and European commissioner, is vulnerable on two fronts: Italy’s dismal economic performance during the past year, and his choice of political allies. His main partner, the Catholic UDC party of Pier Ferdinando Casini, has had a chequered past, particularly in Sicily where Salvatore Cuffaro, the island’s former UDC governor, is serving a jail sentence for abetting the mafia.

Mr Monti has named Enrico Bondi to vet lists of electoral candidates. But it remains to be seen how far Mr Bondi – a respected administrator of failed companies such as the Parmalat dairy group – can assert his control.

On the economic front, Mr Monti said on television that he wanted a second term to show he was more than a “wicked taxman”, promising to lower the fiscal burden by one percentage point, starting with the cost of labour. Latest statistics revealed the depths of Italy’s recession, with new car sales falling nearly 20 per cent in 2012.

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