Friday, December 28, 2012

Europontifex Maximus

Two days before the Pope’s Christmas homily, Mario Monti delivered his own sermon. It was not a call for peace like the Pope’s; on the contrary, it contained a string of deadly barbs mostly aimed at Monti’s predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi and in Monti’s ever-polite way was a gauntlet thrown down.

Berlusconi picked it up immediately and has been working the media overtime ever since.

But Monti did only criticise Berlusconi for inconsistency (“my predecessor was not always linear in his actions”) and his parties. He put forward his own manifesto which had already been dubbed “l’agenda Monti” which he put on line almost immediately. It is a continuation of his government’s programme of fiscal rigour combined with some liberalisation of the economy and growth measures. His declared aims are the support of the Italian and European economies; his less declared aims are the support of the Church and it seemed till then that he would maintain a papal detachment from the rough and tumble of real politics.

With his two hour performance, Monti dispelled any idea that anyone might have still had that he is not a political animal. Without any Alastair Campbell or other obvious spin-doctor hovering in the background, he has been expertly building up his attack forces.

Before the press conference, he gave a long interview to the founder of the centre-left paper La Repubblica, and doyen of Italian journalism, Eugenio Scalfari saying that he was going to move into politics but indirectly and with a hint of some sort of working alliance with the Democratic Party (PD) and Pierluigi Bersani. A couple of days before he had used his last outing as prime minister before resigning to meet with Sergio Marchionne, controversial FIAT CEO and at least some of the union leaders who have come to a deal with Marchionne.

In the press conference itself, he never said that he would actually stand for office himself despite much pressing from the journalists. He does not have to stand for election to Parliament as he is a life senator but he could have said that he would stand as a centrist coalition leader.

He was, as my colleague, Pietro Garau said immediately after the press conference, playing the “europontifex maximus”
The man is far too conceited to go through the grind of a political campaign. In the end, he'll choose to play Europontifex Maximus, stand by the sidelines, offer occasional blessings onto the ones who seem to follow his "agenda" more respectfully, and wait on the sidelines to be begged to save Italy again. Which won't happen.

I wish that was true but since then he has moved a lot closer to the actual playing field.

On Christmas night (at 23.31), he posted his first tweet
Together we’ve saved Italy. Now we must renew politics; no use complaining, get involved. Let’s ‘ascend’ into politics.
Here he was spinning again. There were no papers on Boxing Day but the web, radio and television buzzed for the whole day with all the centrist politicians clustering round Monti like flies round a honeypot.

Yesterday, the Vatican paper L’Osservatore Romano explicitly endorsed him. The Church in Italy has always made it clear which side they are on (the winning side normally) but it is rare for the Vatican as such to be explicit. Monti is the first European candidate for head of government, I think, to have the explicit support of other European leaders and the foreign country here in the middle of Rome.

The next step is technical and tactical and this is being taken today; the disparate elements of the potential Monti-led coalition have to decide how to present themselves. In the Senate the system forces them to stand as a coalition as the threshold is 8% for single parties which would mean no seats. The Chamber threshold is half that so there is still the temptation to stand alone. Either way, they have to act quickly as symbols have to be registered in a fortnight, by 11 January. And somewhere, somehow, they will have to find if not candidates for all 945 seats in Parliament, then at least a third. It is not easy to find 300 good men (and women) and true (and of proven honesty).

For their part, candidates and potential candidates across the country are weighing up the advantages of a job (as minister, undersecretary or just simple backbencher) compared to ideological purity. It is the age-old quandary of principles versus expediency. Some have already moved from the PD to Monti and others from the PdL. For the moment they are the people of principle – the vicars of Bray will come later no doubt when the media searchlights have found other targets.

This has been Monti’s campaign so far. Planned with care, making sure of the size, strength and reliability of his troops before deploying them and then only to well-chosen positions. But it is still a very dangerous game. He risks coming in third or even fourth leading a motley crowd of some very competent and decent people and others who are neither.

In contrast, Berlusconi has laid down a box barrage worthy of the battle of the Somme. He has appeared in one-to-one interviews every day except Christmas. In some of the RAI encounters he was actually questioned and in one, he threatened to walk out. On his own channels, he was naturally given a free run and one he was even caught telling the interview what questions to ask (“after the break, you should ask me…”). The message has been unflinching. “Monti is Merkel’s lapdog and I will lower taxes, especially the property tax. The spread or interest rate difference between Germany and Italy is a con-trick. Trust me.”

This is an interesting message as I have a text on my phone which reads “We abolish the property tax. They tax your house and your savings. Choose the road ahead”. It sounds familiar… but is dated 6 April 2006, just before the last but one elections. The only giveaway for the date is that the property tax is called ICI not IMU like today’s and the message exhorts me to vote for Forza Italia rather than the PdL.

So the battle lines for the moment are between a Monti marshalling his forces and an already fighting Berlusconi. Monti is prepared to get into bed with Bersani who is also willing but neither must seem too keen and above all, Bersani will have to manage the left of his party and his coalition partner Nichi Vendola’s SEL very, very carefully otherwise he will lose Vendola, the left, Monti and the elections.

Grillo and Berlusconi shout populist messages from left and right while the Northern League has to plan its national and Lombard campaigns at the same time.

But by now, if the Europontifex monicker is to stick, Monti will play a Julius II warrior pope rather than one above the fray.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg

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