Monti and the Millionaires: with spring, a new political tenor arrives in Italy

March 22nd, 2012

Published on Spiegel Online International, March 20, 2012.

What’s going on in Italy? The administration is popular, despite having not been elected. Elected political elites, on the other hand, have little power. Under recently appointed Prime Minister Mario Monti; the tenor of Italian politics has improved considerably. The question is how long the experiment can last.   

When it comes to labor laws, even the toughest Italian reformers can lose their courage. For decades the government has tried to change them, but issues like easing stringent legislation that makes it difficult to fire workers hardly lend themselves to fame and honor in Rome. The opposition from the left-wing camp is simply too great.

But now, a decade after Monti’s predecessor Silvio Berlusconi backed down in the face of protests, the overhaul of labor laws is back on Italy’s political agenda. Monti is conducting talks this week with labor unions and workers. And as with previous rounds of labor market discussions, the issue of loosening employment protection laws will be a key sticking point.

Monti’s government believes that if companies can more easily fire workers, they will also be more willing to hire them in the first place. And even though unions and political groups on the left are again threatening massive protests, they are also making an exception by showing their willingness this time to talk. “We can’t keep going ahead and having endless discussions,” Italian Labor Minister Elsa Fornero, who is an economics professor just like government head Monti, said earlier this week. If the coming days don’t produce a compromise, the administration is expected to put forth its own proposal, unchanged, to parliament for a vote.

Most Important European of the Year: … //

… Politics Without Parties:

People are groaning and moaning. How can we get through the coming months? they are asking. And yet they aren’t rebelling. To the contrary, most actually want to keep this “technocratic regime” that has made their lives so difficult. They even want it to stick around after the next election, which is now set for 2013, because, as many Italians ask, “What comes next?”

Should they vote for the old, familiar politicians who led them into this quagmire? The same politicians who only fought amongst themselves and didn’t accomplish anything. The ones that brought Italy to the brink? In a survey, 58 percent of Italians say that they would prefer to vote for Monti — a man who doesn’t fly first class, pays his own way in museums and even forfeited his prime minister’s salary when he accepted the position.

On the other hand, how can politicians woo over voters? Do they say, “Move forward with us back into the past!” Leaders on both the right and the left are bereft of goals, ideals and ideals. Politics seems to be in the process of self-immolation.

Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, only exists on paper. It has fallen into factions and is mainly concerned with saving its own skin. Many see their political survival chained to the return of their former leader. Others see his return as the worst of all possibilities.

The opposition, center-left Democratic Party has become enmeshed in endless political infighting at the top and completely lost touch with its voter base. In recent mayoral elections in major cities such as Milan and Turin, voters cleared away candidates ordained by Rome in primaries, making room for alternatives far removed from the traditional party base.

Italy could get used to politics without parties, warns Pierferdinando Casini, the head of the centrist, Christian Democratic UDC party. Casini would thus prefer to make Italy’s new hero, Monti, his party’s next top candidate. But Monti says he would rather return to his university job.

Monti also has no desire to take on a side job as head of the Euro Group, the important circle of 17 euro-zone finance ministers. Its current president, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who has grown tired of the job, had proposed the Italian for the post and others in the group immediately signaled their approval. But Monti quickly waved off the suggestion he could do two jobs at once like Juncker.

“Do you believe,” he replied to a question about the possibility, “that an Italian head of government can take on additional responsibilities?” (full text).

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