Italy: Monti leaves, Berlusconi threatens comeback

Agence France-Presse

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Italian officials prepare for early elections after Prime Minister Mario Monti said he would soon quit

ROME, Italy – Italian officials on Sunday readied for early elections after Prime Minister Mario Monti said he would soon resign and his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi announced he would run for the top job for the sixth time in two decades.

Monti on Saturday said he would step down as soon as parliament approved next year’s budget, which means elections could now be held as early as February — well before the government’s mandate runs out in late April.

“I have matured in my conviction that we could not continue like this any longer,” Monti was quoted as saying in an interview with top-selling daily Corriere della Sera, a day after his dramatic move.

Monti said he made his decision after Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) party withdrew its support for him last week.

Party chief Angelino Alfano told parliament on Friday that Italy’s debt, unemployment and tax rates had risen, while the economy had plunged since Monti had taken over in November 2011. Monti leads a non-elected cabinet of technocrats.

Alfano went back on the offensive Sunday, saying Monti’s government had made “grave errors” and that the PDL was a “responsible force” for Italy.

“We wanted to signal Italians’ unease with his economic policies,” Alfano said.

Asked about several items of legislation still before parliament, Alfano said his party would only back the budget and a decree to keep open a troubled steel mill in southern Italy that employs thousands of people.

Investors’ reaction

Investors have reacted nervously since the PDL abstained from two confidence votes on the government on Thursday: the stock market plunged and the differential, or “spread”, between Italian and benchmark German bonds widened.

Following talks between Monti and President Giorgio Napolitano on Saturday, the president’s office said Monti “does not think it possible to continue his mandate and consequently made clear his intention to present his resignation”.

Analysts said Monti’s decision to speed up the election could also be a way for him to prepare his own entry into politics after three-time prime minister Berlusconi announced his dramatic return.

Berlusconi’s decision comes despite a tax fraud conviction earlier this year and an ongoing trial for having sex with an underage 17-year-old prostitute and abusing his powers when premier.

“I am running to win,” he said on Saturday, after declaring in October that he would not run.

Most recent polls suggest Berlusconi’s party is running in second or even third place, with the main centre-left Democratic Party led by Pier Luigi Bersani expected to win the elections.

Erik Nielsen, chief economist at UniCredit, said he was “not seriously worried” about the prospects for Italy and predicted either a Bersani-led coalition or a new Monti government after the election.

More than three million centre-left voters took to the polls earlier this month to nominate Bersani as their candidate, a former communist with liberal reformist credentials and experience in government.

Some polls put in second place the Five Star Movement, an Internet-based group led by former comedian and populist blogger Beppe Grillo.

In a blog post on Sunday, Grillo criticized Monti saying he was “leaving a country on its knees.”

“Watch out for the anger of Italians,” he warned.

Feeling the pinch

Primaries held by the movement this month picked dozens of mostly young parliamentary candidates in their 20s and 30s who are campaigning on a series of grassroots issues and environmental causes.

The PDL party had also been due to hold primaries later this month but was forced to cancel them after Berlusconi announced his surprise return.

The party has been riven by infighting ever since Berlusconi stepped down. It has also been hit by a series of scandals over abuse of public funds.

Experts say a campaign against some of Monti’s budget cuts and austerity measures could nevertheless play well, as many Italians are feeling the pinch.

Monti’s supporters say his administration pulled Italy back from bankruptcy and launched crucial liberal economic reforms, implementing tough but necessary austerity to sort out the public finances after years of mismanagement.

In an interview with Il Sole 24 Ore business daily on Sunday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso cautioned Italy against turning back the clock.

Barroso praised Monti for “putting public finances back in order and reforming the economy and for his role in the European debate.

“Italians should not fall under the illusion that there are quick or magic solutions,” he told the paper.

“The next elections should not become a pretext to put in doubt the necessity of the measures approved until now.”

On the sidelines of an economic conference in Cannes, Monti said on Saturday: “I am convinced that whatever government succeeds me, the wisdom of the men and women in Italian politics will prevail.

“I am sure there will not be an attempt to destroy what we have been able to do to secure Italy’s public finances,” he added. There was still an “enormous amount to do for growth.” – Agence France-Presse

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