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Italian elections: Monti vs. Berlusconi and a test of democracy

The upcoming Italian elections are a contest between the populism of short-term fixes championed by Silvio Berlusconi and the long-term reforms of Mario Monti necessary to make Italy’s economy solvent, competitive, and sustainable over the long run.

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Former Italian Prime Minister and current candidate Silvio Berlusconi speaks at a political rally in Rome, Jan. 25. Op-ed contributor Nathan Gardels says 'Italians should consider what is at stake' in the upcoming elections. 'Reforms take many years to manifest their benefits, and are always unpopular at the outset,' he acknowledges, but argues that a 'vote to retain [Italy's] status quo is not only a vote for the past...it is a vote against the future.'

Max Rossi/Reuters

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The upcoming Italian elections Feb. 24-25 are testing whether democracy can correct itself. The elections are a contest between the populism of short-term fixes and the long-term reforms necessary to make Italy’s economy solvent, competitive, and sustainable over the long run.

Mario Monti’s period (beginning November 2011) as an unelected “technocratic” prime minister appointed by President Napolitano, outside of politics, was a “circuit breaker.” It aimed at shifting Italy’s unsustainable course by making reforms on a range of issues from pensions to taxes to flexibility in the labor market. Taking a sober look at the future, Mr. Monti’s policies sought to respond to a reality all of Europe must face.

Europe has 7 percent of the global population and accounts for 24 percent of global production and 50 percent of social spending. As the emerging economies from China to Brazil to Turkey level the playing field and erode Europe’s share of production, Europeans will have to become more competitive and productive to be able to finance the same level of social spending. Or the level of benefits people have become used to must be cut.

For all his willingness to face the facts, Mr. Monti has been rewarded by the electorate with plummeting poll numbers. Some polls suggest Monti's coalition would only garner about 13 percent of the vote in an election.

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