Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Monti resigned on Friday night as he said he would, with all the fanfare one might expect from a technocrat. There were no cheers of relief or parades in the street like when his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi left the stage 13 months ago. Instead, Monti gave a subdued speech to Italy’s ambassadors who had come home for Christmas, during which he highlighted the successes of his unelected reign, including clamping down on tax evasion and bolstering Italy’s tarnished image abroad. “Thank you for letting me conclude these difficult but fascinating 13 months,” he said in his final words as prime minister. Monti then traveled through the streets of Rome, merrily lit up for the holidays, to the presidential palace on the Quirnale Hill and handed his formal resignation to Italy’s ceremonial president Giorgio Napolitano. “A year ago this government was launched,” he told his staff before resigning. “And today we must bring it to an end, but not because of a Mayan prophecy.”
Italy is now back in political purgatory, a place its citizens know well. In the coming days Napolitano will officially dissolve Parliament and open up the much-dreaded political-campaign season for elections that will be held on February 24. Monti is expected to assume a caretaker role until then. He won’t be able to pass legislation, but will stay at the helm to handle any emergencies that may arise between the end of his and the beginning of the next government term. On Saturday he will meet with various political leaders to tidy up unfinished business and discuss his next move. On Sunday he will give his year-end press conference, during which he will lay out his hopes for Italy’s fiscal future, in an attempt to persuade his successor to embrace austerity as he has done. He may or may not announce his next move.
On everyone’s mind is whether or not he will trade his technocrat cap for a political one and seek a legitimate mandate as an elected prime minister. And if he does, it is unclear whether Italians will vote for more austerity. “Italy had a high temperature and we could not cure it with a simple aspirin,” he told a group of industrialists the day before he resigned. “We needed a bitter medicine that was not easy to digest but that was absolutely necessary to go in deep and completely cure the illness. It would be irresponsible to waste all the sacrifices that Italians made.”
Monti has the support of a centrist group of politicians, entrepreneurs, and business leaders, but he has been warned off running by both Pier Luigi Bersani, the leading candidate from the center-left who supports Monti’s austerity, and Silvio Berlusconi, who does not, and who has returned to center stage with all the pomp and circumstance one might expect. In fact, the less Italians see of Monti, the more they are seeing of Berlusconi, who has been sworn in as prime minister four times before (though he has only won three elections) and who wants the job again. Once Parliament is dissolved and the election officially begins, strict rules kick in that limit the amount of air-time candidates can have so everyone has an equal voice—not an easy task when one candidate owns over half the media. So it’s no surprise that since December 11, Berlusconi has been flooding the airwaves with interviews. He has been on the radio and television 10 times in as many days. His voice is a sort of constant background noise to the people, and many of his interviews are replayed to get maximum coverage.
His interviews are disguised stump speeches in which the hosts—who he employs—set up a question or topic from which he departs. He has hinted of an anti-euro platform, telling viewers that if things don’t change, “We will be forced to leave the euro and return to our own currency in order to be competitive,” he said on one of his television programs.
He has promised to abolish the loathed property tax on primary homes that Monti reinstated, calling it an “unnecessary burden” on a radio program. Berlusconi won his first whirl as prime minister on the same promise and immediately abolished the tax when he took office. Monti’s reinstatement of the tax has been a punishing blow to many Italians who have more property than they can afford to pay tax on, and Berlusconi’s promise is more than a little bit enticing. Berlusconi has also mocked the so-called bond spread as a “con” on yet another channel. “No one had heard of it before. It's only been talked about for a year. What do we care about it?"
Berlusconi may be lagging in the polls, but his popularity has risen by at least two points since his media assault began last week. The current leader Bersani’s popularity has fallen slightly since embracing Monti's austerity cause. If Monti runs, which looks increasingly improbable, he has little hope of winning without the support of another faction, and if he doesn’t run, his support of a candidate could be a death knell as Italians consider whether they want more tough-love austerity or not. All the while, Berlusconi is doing what he does best by offering bread and circuses when Italians are vulnerable to distraction. Berlusconi may not be a favorite yet, but he is singing a tune that many Italians like to hear.