Italian political parties must shore up fraying support for Prime Minister Mario Monti or risk a return to the crisis that brought the euro zone to the brink of collapse last year, Franco Frattini, an ex-foreign minister and leading member of Italy’s biggest party, said on Monday. Monti, hailed as a saviour when he succeeded the scandal-plagued Silvio Berlusconi at the height of last year’s debt crisis, has seen his once stellar approval ratings sink in the past weeks as opposition to his economic reform plans has grown.
A labour market reform seen as a centerpiece of his agenda has been particularly contentious, costing him popular support and eating into his political capital with the parties whose support he depends on in parliament. Monti’s falling popularity and increasingly vocal political attacks from all sides have coincided with a return of the kind of financial market tensions that sent Italy’s borrowing costs nearly out of control last year. “If we create the impression that even Monti is bogged down, the markets will dive in,” Frattini, one of the senior figures of Berlusconi’s centre-right PDL party, told Reuters in an interview at his offices in Rome. “There is no one better than Monti around today. That’s the truth,” said Frattini, a leading member of the PDL’s moderate wing. Monti, a technocrat, still enjoys approval ratings well above those of any of the parties. But there has been a steady decline over the past few weeks, from a high this year of 59 percent on March 6 to 47 percent last week, according to a survey on Monday by the SWP polling institute.
The labour market reforms, which would make it easier for companies to dismiss workers, have eaten into his support on the left, while the PDL has joined employers in attacking concessions Monti has made to the unions.With local elections on May 6-7 set to provide the first concrete test of political support for the parties since Monti’s appointment in November, politicians have been increasingly ready to take aim at the government.
Frattini expressed concern that, away from a core group in the main parties, opposition to Monti was on the rise among politicians now clearly focused on the local elections and even on a general election early next year.Support for the prime minister is shared among moderates on both sides of the political divide, he said, but not by every one. “There are people in all the parties who are discontented, who say ‘We can’t have this, we can’t have that’,” he said. “But the alternative is definitely worse. Just the idea of going to an early vote would be disastrous.” The PDL is pushing Monti to make further changes to the labour reforms, in particular to ease penalties intended to dissuade companies from offering workers temporary contracts rather than permanent jobs. But Frattini said it was vital that the measure not be held up in parliament.
“We need the law on labour market reform to be passed as quickly as possible. We’ve got the local elections in May but we need the labour reforms in force by June,” he said. It remains to be seen whether his own party – where many still resent being expelled from office when Monti was appointed by President Giorgio Napolitano – would heed his call.But Frattini warned his colleagues not to tempt fate. “If this experiment with the Monti government fails, none of the parties will gain from it,” he said. “Populism will win and Italy will lose.”