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Italy's Mario Monti speaks softly and carries a big question mark

The technocrat prime minister is winning praise for his efforts to pull the nation out of an economic morass. But is Italy's democracy in peril?

April 30, 2012|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

Within weeks of taking office, Monti launched his Grow Italy campaign to unblock the sclerotic economy and make it more competitive. In spite of high living standards and world-class brands such as Fiat and Prada, economic growth in Italy has been abysmal; only a few countries, such as Zimbabwe and Haiti, recorded a worse rate of growth in the first decade of this century.

Italy is also staggering under the biggest government debt load of any developed nation: about $2.5 trillion, or 120% of gross domestic product.

To pare that back, Monti succeeded in getting Parliament to pass a $40-billion austerity package. He raised taxes, boosted the retirement age, went after suspected tax cheats and made other changes that previous governments promised but never carried out.

Parliament's quarrelsome factions have mostly submitted meekly to Monti's proposals, fearing a public backlash if they don't. They know that trust in the political establishment is at a historical low: In a recent poll, a barely detectable 2% of respondents said they had strong faith in Italy's traditional parties.

That means that even the recent drop in Monti's approval rating because of the proposed labor reforms — it recently dipped below 50% — still puts him leagues ahead of any of Italy's usual political actors.

Casini is calling for Monti to stay on past the 2013 elections, arguing that Italy's economic crisis will take more than just a year to solve. But critics warn that such a move could send the country down the wrong path, even if it's far from the dictatorial Fascism of Mussolini nearly a century ago.

Monti himself has been coy about his intentions, although he apparently foresees a return to some version of normality after next year's election.

"The 'political' governments will be back, as is natural," he wrote in a letter published last month in Corriere della Sera, saying there was "no such thing as 'Montism.' "

Many here are touting him as Italy's next president, a ceremonial post that wields great moral authority and that would give him a bully pulpit from which to prevent politicians from trying to undo his work as prime minister.

But the political landscape has already been thrown into confusion by this interruption of regular democratic practice, leaving a potential vacuum once Monti departs.

"Nobody knows exactly what political Italy will be in one year's time," said Franco, the columnist. "I'm sure that the political geography one year on will be completely different."

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