Italy’s election campaign started in earnest yesterday after Mario Monti’s resignation as Italian prime minister opened the way for a contest dominated by a raging debate over austerity in the recession-hit country.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano was set to begin talks with political leaders in the key eurozone state yesterday before dissolving parliament and formally calling a general election.
Monti, appointed to head up a technocrat government last year as Italy battled the debt crisis, has been called on by his supporters to run in the February election or endorse parties who pledge to continue his reforms.
Monti’s archrival, flamboyant former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, has blamed Germany for Italy’s woes and called for an end to austerity, while Monti has urged more budget discipline.
The unelected Monti has kept his cards close to his chest, appearing reluctant to dive into the rough-and-tumble of Italian electoral politics, but is expected to announce today whether he will enter into the fray.
His decision is likely to determine the shape of the campaign, which could become a three-way race between Berlusconi, center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani and a Monti-backed coalition.
Observers say the vote will probably take place on Feb. 24. For the moment, the prime minister will stay on in a caretaker capacity.
In his last speech as prime minister ahead of a final Cabinet meeting on Friday, Monti said that his 13 months in government had been “difficult, but fascinating” and voiced hope that his reform agenda would continue under a new government.
Italy was now “more reliable” on the international stage, he said.
European leaders in particular have favored measures introduced by Monti to rein in Italy’s vast debt and have urged him to run, not only to continue his program, but also to block a bid for power from the irrepressible Berlusconi.
The current favorite in the polls is Bersani, but things could change if Monti decides to join the campaign and back a coalition of small centrist parties, as some Italian media have been reporting.
Monti’s name cannot officially be on the ballot as he is already a senator for life, but after the elections, the former economics professor could still be appointed to a post in government, including prime minister or finance minister.
Three-time prime minister Berlusconi has said he will stand, though he has since vacillated wildly between declaring his support for Monti — offering at the same time to withdraw his own candidacy — and heavily criticizing Monti’s economic record.
Scandal-hit Berlusconi, 76, has said he can boost his low popularity back up to the levels of previous victorious campaigns, but his People of Freedom party (PDL) has been hit hard by internal divisions and may find it hard to rally.
Bersani, who has promised to continue Monti’s reforms and tackle the country’s high unemployment levels, has said he would be surprised if the former Eurocrat entered the race, but is ready to fight him for the top job.
Monti rescued Italy from the brink of bankruptcy, launching long-delayed pension and labor market reforms and joining other eurozone leaders in battling the debt crisis.
However, ordinary Italians have been hit hard by his austerity measures and tax hikes, which have squeezed the middle class in particular, and his popularity rating has fallen from more than 60 percent to about 30 percent in recent months.
While the business world and the Catholic Church have been hugely supportive of Monti, he has been cautioned in some quarters not to run.
Berlusconi said the outgoing prime minister risked becoming a “small player” on the political scene if he allied with “little parties.”
Some political observers have said Monti is unlikely to be a candidate because he risks losing not only the election, but also the credibility he has built on the international stage.