A Time for Mischief: Will Monti’s Departure Mean Berlusconi’s Return?

Italians — and Europeans — were stunned at the turn of political events, just as the economy seemed to be approaching some sort of stability

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Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum for TIME

Mario Monti at Palazzo Chigi in Rome, Feb of 2012.

The reaction to the news from Italy — that Prime Minister Mario Monti will soon step down to make way for early elections featuring the possible return of Silvio Berlusconi — has been nearly unanimously negative and, in some quarters, uncharacteristically vocal. “Worried about the resignation of Italian PM Mario Monti,” wrote Finland’s Minster for European Affairs, Alexander Stubb, in a tweet on Sunday morning. “I think he is one of the best European leaders we have.”

Martin Schulz, a German politician whom Berlusconi once likened to a concentration-camp guard, was more direct. “Europe needs stability,” he said, in an interview with the Italian news agency ANSA. “And Mr. Berlusconi is the opposite of stability.” Even Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, expressed his worries. “We can’t allow a year of sacrifices to be ruined,” he said, referring to painful austerity measures Monti has introduced in order regain the confidence of the markets. “What’s stunning is the irresponsibility of those who think of their own interests while the house is still burning.” By Monday evening, the markets had weighed in as well, with the Milan Stock Exchange down 2.2% at the close of trading.

(VIDEO: Interview with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti)

The crisis kicked off at the end of last week, when Berlusconi used a visit to the practice grounds of his soccer team, A.C. Milan, to announce he would be standing as a candidate for Prime Minister. The next day, his allies in Parliament partially withdrew their support of Monti, abstaining on a crucial vote. The move wasn’t enough to bring the government down on its own, but it promised months of deadlock. The ground seemed laid for a long winter of down-to-the-wire votes, with Berlusconi forcing his opponents to take ownership of Monti’s often unpopular proposals, each time registering his disapproval but allowing the government to limp on.

Instead, on Saturday evening, Monti announced he wouldn’t wait for a formal loss of support and handed in his resignation, effective on the passage of a budget bill. “I preferred that the decision and the announcement would fall on a day when the markets were closed,” he told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, “with 24 or 36 hours [for investors] to absorb the eventual blow.” The vote on the budget could take place as early as the days before Christmas and is likely to happen before the end of the year. Italy’s newspapers are predicting a vote at the end of February.

(MORE: Why Mario Monti Is the Most Important Man in Europe)

For Berlusconi, who was forced from the premiership by the markets just over a year ago, the move seemed to be the culmination of a longstanding plan to step aside, tacitly support Monti as he passed unpopular provisions and then return as the opposition. Indeed, one paper friendly to the media magnate seemed to start laying the groundwork even before Monti had taken office. “Here comes Mr. Taxes: Watch your Wallet,” read the headline on the day after Berlusconi resigned in November last year. On Thursday, the process was complete: “I’m returning with a sense of despair to take care of public affairs,” Berlusconi told reporters. “And I’m doing it once again out of a sense of responsibility.”

To be sure, Berlusconi isn’t favored to win. His party is currently polling at roughly 15%, less than half as much as the election’s most likely victor, the center-left Democratic Party. Monti too has hinted he might consider a run. “He knows that he can’t win,” says Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at Rome’s LUISS Guido Carli University. “The best that he can hope for is to join [the center-left] and form a more balanced coalition, more balanced toward Europe and the need for more serious reforms.”

In the short term, the upheaval leaves Italy without a rudder in European waters that have yet to calm. In addition to the budget, there are several other bills waiting for parliamentary approval that may never see passage. Meanwhile, with E.U. leaders set to meet later this week, to discuss European finances, Monti will have less leverage to counter German proposals with policies more favorable to Italy. With Spain, France and Greece, similarly weak, southern Europe is losing its most powerful voice. “It’s going to make for a very one-sided conversation,” says Erik Jones, director of the Bologna Institute for Policy Research at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna Center. “It’s going to be more lopsided now than ever.”

MORE: Monti to the Rescue: But Is the Technocrat Italian Enough to Save Italy?

36 comments
xavbx33
xavbx33

@Boolthazard and I don't like him either! #Boolard

Davidcule19
Davidcule19

@time @timeworld #Bersculoni, has shown with Power,money&fame, you can get what you want, after his criminal charges? OMG!

FrancioniMarco
FrancioniMarco

@TIME @TIMEWorld Italy really hopes he will not!!!

m_ceck
m_ceck

@TIME @TIMEWorld quoting the who, "we won't get fooled again"

d0m0pak
d0m0pak

@TIME @TIMEWorld Monti isn't important for Berlusconi, He returns only for his interest....but he will not be the winner! Sure.. ;)

TLoikkanen
TLoikkanen

@TIME @TIMEWorld Only Italians will know the answer. They can vote - we can just hope that they vote correctly.

ElviraDiCara
ElviraDiCara

@TIME all country is praying God to save us from his return. We're sick and tired of feeling ashamed because of him.

NazishMunch
NazishMunch

@TIME @TIMEWorld The nightmare that never ends....

_1881
_1881

@TIME @TIMEWorld #sayno #nonlovoto NO! @ste_ren @sofiapandolfo

franzgir8
franzgir8

@TIME No, no. No. No. I hope no.

Teppum
Teppum

@TIME @TIMEWorld Let's hope not for god's sake makes a mockery of Italian democracy.

mennasesto
mennasesto

@TIME @TIMEWorld Nooooo!!! Italians doesn't want again berlusconi!!!!!

Jesuis_ant
Jesuis_ant

@TIME be afraid, be very afraid.

mrjoco69
mrjoco69

@TIME @TIMEWorld Its Monti's chance to get elected, Italians will never vote again for Berlusconi.

FedericoMilano
FedericoMilano

@TIME @timeworld No please! ITALY doesn't want it!! (I hope)

Manuele2279
Manuele2279

@TIME @timeworld I'm wait with more happiness the 21/12 the end of this planet,if Berlusconi return.

matteo_serio
matteo_serio

@TIME @timeworld you missed a point. Mr.Passera, italy's dev.min. said that berlusconi's return would not be good.

MMesenasco
MMesenasco

@columdonnelly @TIME Se il problema fosse solo che non parlano inglese non ci sarebbero certi spettri all'orizzonte.

danteferraris
danteferraris

@columdonnelly @TIME pensa se lo parlassi io , chr macello!

matteo_serio
matteo_serio

@TIME @timeworld this is really a smart question. I'd add why....

ik1tzo
ik1tzo

@TIME hope no! Hope he will go to the hell!

Film2240
Film2240

@TIME @TIMEWorld Berluscoini's trying to run for office again.Yeah we'll see.

Marco_Ianno
Marco_Ianno

@TIME @TIMEWorld hopefully not. He has lost his credibility (if any) and noone is going to put Italy's faith in his hands #donotvoteforhim

PVincent20
PVincent20

@TIME @TIMEWorld Après moi, le déluge...

SanQuirico
SanQuirico

@stephanfaris Too big to see on phone. Hope huge sarcasm. I assume #Berlusconi will need votes (plural) to be elected?

columdonnelly
columdonnelly

Peccato :-( ma posso tradurlo per te @danteferraris @time

stephanfaris
stephanfaris

@SanQuirico should be a mobile version. It doesn't come up? The headline isn't mine. the piece makes clear B is unlikely to win.

danteferraris
danteferraris

@columdonnelly @TIME TRANQUILLO DI STUPIDAGGINI ITALIDIOTE NE FACCIO A MENO.

SanQuirico
SanQuirico

@stephanfaris Got the headline. Just suffering form a not very 'smart' phone.

columdonnelly
columdonnelly

@danteferraris qui c'è da divertirsi! (E anche un po' di tristezza) @time