Italy’s government of appointed technocrats is not just shaking up a moribund economy, but also raising hopes among a disaffected electorate of a profound political change.
Mario Monti has only just completed his first 100 days in office as prime minister and already the country, and anxious foreign investors, are asking what will follow after a general election due early next year.
“Parliament is full of dead men walking,” says one veteran senator who is among a legion of legislators contemplating the end of their political lives.
One recent poll found only 8 per cent of voters rated the existing parties highly.
“The peculiarity of this crisis is that for the first time Italy had a situation in which both the government and the opposition declared themselves incompetent to deal with it,” comments Stefano Bartolini, professor of political science at the European University Institute in Florence. “The state is rotten.”
Silvio Berlusconi, the three-time centre-right prime minister who was forced out of office last November, has said he will not run again for the top job and is backing Angelino Alfano, his 41-year-old former justice minister from Sicily, as the party’s candidate.
Polls show support for Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty at an all-time low of just over 20 per cent. The centre-left Democrats are not in much better shape with Pierluigi Bersani, their vacillating and uncharismatic leader, unable to stamp his authority over the party’s diverse factions.
If the Democratic party does decide, like Mr Berlusconi, that it is time for a generational change and that the path to electoral victory is to convince voters of their Monti-like credentials, then a rising star with a chance to prove himself is Matteo Renzi, the 37-year-old mayor of Florence.
“With Monti’s government, everything has changed,” he tells the Financial Times in Palazzo Vecchio, the 14th-century city hall.
Mr Renzi, who went against the Democratic establishment in running for mayor in 2009, is challenging Mr Bersani to agree to hold primaries to choose the party’s candidate for prime minister, although he insists he has not yet decided whether to run.
Presenting himself as a fan of Mr Monti’s market reforms, Mr Renzi wants to go much further. “Liberalising taxis and pharmacies is fine,” he says of two sectors where Mr Monti watered down original proposals. “But what about banks, insurance and energy companies?”
“Now it is time to reform the whole country,” he says, taking on trade unions, a “nepotistic” university system that destroys meritocracy, the system of state financing for political parties and their newspapers, a bloated parliament which he would cut in half and “politicians, like yoghurt, who have passed their sell-by date”.
Italy’s left, says Mr Renzi, has to move away from the old logic.
“Italian politics were driven by hate of enemies. Berlusconi said the communists ate babies and the left said he was the absolute evil … Monti has taken us out of this phase of hate and into one of comparative debate,” he says.
Mr Renzi appears to have sustained much of the popularity that secured him 60 per cent of the vote in Florence in 2009. He cut the city’s council in half and appointed more women than men. Party functionaries were evicted from running public utilities, and he has reduced the city’s additional income tax by cutting back on spending.
But Mr Renzi faces an enormous challenge to leap from provincial Italy to the centre of power in Rome. The establishment sees him as a presumptuous upstart, and many Democratic supporters hailing from its communist origins say he is in the wrong party.
In the new political world ushered in by Mr Monti, however unintentionally, moves are under way in both main parties and a smaller grouping of centrist parties to maintain a status quo while they rebuild around the existing political caste. The possibility of an election next year resulting in no clear winner is already spawning talk of Mr Monti being asked to stay on for a second term, a scenario the prime minister has not categorically excluded.
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