During the quiet of Christmas night, at around 11:30 p.m., Italy’s outgoing prime minister, Mario Monti, sent a tweet under his new handle, @senatoremonti.
But unlike most late-night holiday attempts at social networking, Monti’s was neither spontaneous nor an emotional whim. It was only his second tweet, and it was meant as a shot straight at the heart of his chief nemesis, Silvio Berlusconi. “Together we have saved Italy from disaster. Now it’s time to renew politics. There is no point in complaining, we must commit ourselves. ‘Rise up’ in politics!” he wrote, leaving no question that the ‘disaster’ he was referring to was Berlusconi himself.
Just days before, on Dec. 22, Monti officially resigned from his 13-month stint as Italy’s unelected technocratic prime minister, having been appointed to take over after Berlusconi lost a crucial confidence vote and resigned in a sensational spectacle, harangued out of office amid a slew of corruption allegations and sex scandals. Berlusconi’s departure spurred celebrations in the streets of Rome and Milan, and Monti—dubbed “super Mario” by some—was seen as a savior for the country. He has spent the last year pressing biting austerity measures and reforms, which have, for now, saved the country from an economic abyss.
Many say Monti is the only one who can keep Italy’s economy afloat, but he can’t reincarnate himself without some changes—or an electoral tie, in which he would be reappointed to the job. “Continuing as prime minister would obviously give him the greatest possibility of carrying on his work as an economic reformer,” says James Walston, political analyst and professor at the American University in Rome. “But it would require either a hung parliament or a new and different Monti, a politician who would have to come to terms with the parties and interests that support him, possibly a coalition son or grandson of the historic compromise.”
Monti has so far failed to take a clear decision on whether or not he will run in elections to be held Feb. 24 and 25, but he has alluded that he would consider being part of a centrist group headed by industrialists. While not impossible, a Monti campaign would be a difficult feat to pull off in just under two months, especially given that he is not affiliated with any political party and thus doesn’t have enough candidates on his team to build a majority in parliament. But he still has ample power without actually running. During his year-end press conference on Dec. 23, he managed a full frontal attack on Berlusconi that few in positions of power have ever pulled off with a straight face. “I am perplexed by my predecessor,” he said at the televised event. “I have a difficult time following his line of thinking.”
Instead of publicly laying out a campaign platform, which would have sounded like he was actually campaigning, he published his agenda on a “non-campaign” website called agenda-monti.it.) But as long as he’s not actually in the race, he can continue to launch sarcastic zingers at Berlusconi without being perceived to be mired in a political mudslinging battle. Last week, Monti said he was “not in favor of political parties based on personalities” which is how Berlusconi came to power. He has also been stern in his condemnation of Italy’s “embarrassing attitude towards women”, which is an obvious affront to Berlusconi and his history of blatantly sexist comments. After all, aside from his obvious weakness for women, this is a man who not so long ago called on international investors to consider Italy because “our secretaries are beautiful.”
Monti has also taken aim at laws Berlusconi has instated during his three terms as prime minister that have protected him from criminal prosecution, including shortening the statute of limitations on some fiscal crimes. Monti said that “laws are meant for the nation, not individuals,” referring to Berlusconi’s penchant for self-help rules.
Berlusconi has tried to retaliate, taking to his own airwaves to call Monti’s economic approach akin to treating an illness like a “medieval medic” and dispatching many of his political minions to do his dirty work, including Anna Maria Bernini, a leader in Berlusconi’s center-right party. “It is shocking to see how a man can present himself as a savior after bringing the country to recession,” she said, condemning Monti’s tweet. “He is taking all the merit and attributing all the disasters to others.”
Support for Monti is growing steadily. On Friday, the Vatican, which had previously backed Berlusconi, changed alliance to endorse Monti as their candidate of choice. An op-ed in the Osservatore Romano called Monti’s apparent move towards the ballot “an appeal to recover the higher and more noble sense of politics that is beneficial for the good of all.” Still, Monti will need to make a commitment to actually run or at least more firmly align himself with one side to reinvent himself as an elected leader. “If a credible political force asked me to run as prime minister for them, I would consider it,” he said at his last public appearance. But in many ways, he may actually have more power by staying on the sidelines.