Can Technocracy and Democracy Coexist? Super Mario Goes for the Full Monti in Italy (D Balke)

29 Dec

It looks like economist and former technocratic Prime Minister Mario Monti will stand for the premiership when Italians go to the polls on 24-25 February. This is great news for Italy. Not only has Monti brought his country’s economy back from the brink, via stimulus, sensible spending cuts, improved tax collection, and, most importantly, a little help from the expansionist monetary policy of his fellow Italian and ECB President Mario Draghi. He has also shown his countrymen what competent, focused, and pragmatic governance can accomplish.

But Monti was installed without elections following the resignation of embattled former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi last November. This original sin is about to face the music. Voters will decide whether to provide a democratic mandate to the technocrat whose fiscal prudence has pulled the Italian economy back from the cliff, but who would need to continue this tough medicine for years in order to bring the country’s economic house sustainably into order. More broadly, Monti’s decision to run provides an interesting test case in whether technocratic and democratic governance can coexist. The results of this experiment could hold important lessons for policymakers elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

Gauging Monti’s prospects for victory requires a quick survey of Italy’s political landscape. Monti is worshipped abroad for his competent handling of the Italian economy. But things are different at home. Although he commands respect from most Italians, Monti’s low approval ratings make plain that, in the political world, “respected” and “popular” can mean two very different things. Since he has not formally entered the electoral fray as a candidate, there exists scant reliable polling data on how Monti would fare against more established candidates.

At this point, most Italian political watchers say the smart money is on Pier Bersani, head of the centre-left Democratic Party, to capture the top job. Comedian Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement commands solid voter support in most polls. But it will almost certainly not finish first and is unlikely, moreover, to garner enough support to play kingmaker. Some analysts suggest a more worrying scenario. They contend that Monti’s entrance into the race as head of a centrist conglomeration could split moderate votes with Bersani, thereby paving the way for Berlusconi – who just announced that he will attempt yet another comeback, atop the centre-right People of Freedom party – to become prime minister for an unprecedented fourth time.

However, most observers agree that Monti will most likely play a big role in Italy’s immediate political future. If Bersani becomes prime minister, he could tap Monti as finance minister, president, or for a new position akin to “super minister”. There also still exists the chance that Monti could rally voters to his honest, no-nonsense approach to governing. In the theatrical environment of Italian politics, Monti’s sober, tell-it-like-it-is nature could prove quite appealing.

The electoral timing looks good, as well. With elections set for late February, a quick burst of momentum in the opening months of January could pull the technocrat over the top. It will help that Monti has the support of some of the country’s most successful businessmen, like Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo, who has been one of Monti’s most vocal proponents, and could join the former prime minister’s ticket as a candidate. To the extent that Monti begins to surge in the polls, one can expect support from businesses heads – who benefit from a stable political and economic environment, and have grown tired of Berlusconi-era political erraticism – to flood in.

Monti’s election as Italy’s next prime minister could change the way in which analysts view the incentives politicians face in attempting to win or retain office. Pundits assume that governing in a technocratic fashion will result in negative political consequences. Governing as a technocrat means adopting policies required to solve problems without respect to the political consequences that these policies will engender. According to the prevailing view, unelected leaders can govern technically more easily than their elected counterparts, because they feel less political pressure from groups who stand to lose from technical policies. If one’s continuation in office does not hinge on election outcomes, one has less reason to care what voters think than someone whose political survival derives from results at the ballot box.

This is why Italy and Greece recently installed technocratic prime ministers. Both countries faced economic crisis. This owed, in part, to chaotic political environments and leaders who proved unwilling to counter the special interests upon whose support they depended to retain their positions. It was thought that bringing-in unelected technocrats for short stints would allow them to adopt the unpopular policies necessary to pull both economies back from the brink. This would then allow each country to quickly return to democratic politics as usual.

A Monti victory would signal a new and exciting political possibility. It would signal that politicians can win elections by pledging to take the difficult policy decisions necessary to address a country’s biggest long-term challenges, even if doing so inflicts economic pain in the short- or medium-term. It would signal that politicians can win elections without catering to the demands of powerful interests, by advocating policies that would benefit the country as a whole. And it would signal that politicians can speak honestly to voters about the challenges that their country faces and the policies needed to address them. On balance, a Monti victory would incent politicians to act more boldly, more honestly, and more soundly when it comes to policy choices.

A win for Monti would change voter incentives, too. Currently, in most countries, monied interests control the priorities and policy decisions of elected officials. Politicians need money to win elections. They are more likely to respond to the policy interests of those who provide them with the most campaign funds. This means that non-wealthy voters have little reason to believe that politicians will listen to their policy demands. Since they have little confidence that politicians will strongly consider their opinions when mapping out a policy agenda, non-wealthy voters, who have a number of responsibilities competing for their time, have little incentive to invest time and energy in researching the nuances of complex policy issues and reaching out to politicians to urge them to follow their preferences.

But if a politician pursued policies that worked in the interest of the majority, and if that politician rode this formula to electoral victory, voters would feel they had a greater stake in the political process. They would believe their opinions could influence elected officials’ priorities. This would incent voters to devote more time to learning about issues, devising opinions about them, and holding officials accountable for pursuing policies that respond to these opinions.

Idosyncracies limit the applicability of the current Italian situation to other countries’ political contexts. Yet, Mario’s attempt to go for the full Monti could hold political implications that extend well beyond Italy.

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One Response to “Can Technocracy and Democracy Coexist? Super Mario Goes for the Full Monti in Italy (D Balke)”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Forging a Path Forward in Crisis Politics « The Meeting Place - December 30, 2012

    […] political situation in Italy just written about by Daniel represents, as he mentioned, a common form of political struggle faced by communities and countries […]

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