Be careful what you wish for. Mario Monti, Italy’s technocrat prime minister, announced his resignation this weekend, just after his predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi, bullied him off center stage. But many now wonder if Monti will return and seek a legitimate mandate to finish the job—and give Berlusconi a run for his money.
Monti has clearly had enough of his frustrating role as Italy’s technocratic leader. After 13 months of trying to steer the nation’s dysfunctional Parliament toward stoic austerity, he has inarguably accomplished more than any of his predecessors. He has cracked down on tax evasion, skimmed the fat off government spending, and restored the country’s credibility on the global stage. But all the while, his approval has been falling steadily—from nearly 75 percent when he took over from Berlusconi last November to just over 30 percent last week—because of his tough-love measures, earning him the dubious nickname Rigor Montis in certain circles.
And there is still much to be done: the economy is stagnant, and the country’s debt is staggering.
But it is clear that Monti can’t do any more as an unelected official. He was given the undesirable job of trying to save Italy’s economy from the abyss last November when Berlusconi was harassed out of office amid sex and corruption allegations. Then, in an announcement late Saturday night that was somewhat surprising given the timing—but not entirely unexpected given the circumstances—the former economics professor tendered his “irrevocable resignation” to Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s president, pending the passage of his austerity stability act, expected in the coming days. Monti “does not believe it possible to continue his mandate and consequently made clear his intention to present his resignation,” Napolitano said in a statement released on his official website. The reference to Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PDL) party’s public announcement Friday that they “consider the Monti government over” was clear.
Monti, who spent Sunday morning as he usually does, attending mass and stopping by a coffee bar for a brioche with his wife, Elsa, told the newspaper Corriere della Sera that the PDL’s public insult was the last straw. “I felt really angry by those words,” Monti said. “I reached the conclusion that I couldn’t go forward like that.”
Hours before, Berlusconi, had confirmed he was indeed seeking election again, citing a “responsibility” and “duty” to return to power to save Italy from Monti’s austerity track. Whether Berlusconi will run on an anti-Euro platform is still not clear.
Monti is out for now, but he has not confirmed that he is out of politics for good. He is seen as the obvious choice for a reappointment to the job if the elections, now expected next February, don’t produce a clear winner. He has insisted that he won’t run on his own, but he has not ruled out a return to power. “In terms of politics, I have more freedom now,” he told reporters.
Now the real game begins. Political leaders spent much of Sunday setting strategies for the imminent elections, which must be held within 70 days of Monti’s last day in office. But Napolitano, who says it will take about a week to know when Monti’s resignation will take effect, said that tomorrow’s opening of the European markets will show the real impact of the current turmoil, which may dictate how Italians eventually vote more than any campaign styles and strategies. In polls over the weekend, Berlusconi’s PDL had less than 20 percent support, after comedian turned politico Beppe Grillo and his anti-establishment Five-Star Movement. They both trail center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, who called Berlusconi’s antics “reckless” and Monti’s response by resigning “dignified.”
Meanwhile, Berlusconi seemed to be oblivious to the chaos he created, stopping to chat with reporters Saturday outside his soccer team AC Milan’s training stadium. On Monday, Ruby the Heart Stealer of bunga-bunga fame, whom he allegedly paid for sex acts when she was just 17, is expected to testify in his underage-prostitution trial in Milan. Berlusconi denies the allegations.
“We looked for a suitable leader to replace me,” he said, confirming that he wants his old job back. “But we didn’t find one, so I’m running, but not just to place well. I’m running to win.”
Whether the country would be on the winning end with a fourth Berlusconi term—if that is even a real possibility—is an entirely different story.