ROME — Italy's president gave a blessing of sorts to Premier Mario Monti's decision to head a new coalition vying for power in February elections, saying he made a "free choice" to campaign and indirectly praising Monti's role in restoring trust in Italy's finances.
President Giorgio Napolitano made the comments in his annual end-of-the-year speech, a ritual that took on particular importance this year amid the recent tumult in Italy's political scene. There have been widespread indications that Napolitano was displeased with Monti's decision to enter the fray, since Napolitano had appointed him technical leader with the specific task of leading Italy out of its debt mess until an elected government could be sworn in.
Monti ended weeks of hedging on Friday and announced he would head a coalition of centrist parties, business leaders and pro-Vatican politicians in the Feb. 24-25 elections, setting up a race with the leading center-left Democratic Party, ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi's embattled center-right forces and a populist movement headed by a comic.
At the start of his speech, Napolitano said he wouldn't judge any political programs. But while focusing on the problems Italy is facing, he stressed the significance of its lowered borrowing costs and the need for Italy to remain fully committed to Europe — points Monti himself has stressed. And at the end Napolitano referred to Monti by name, saying he had "made a free choice of initiative and political commitment" to head a new political entity.
Most of his speech was bleak about the dire economic situation Italy finds itself in despite a raft of austerity measures, tax hikes and fiscal reforms pushed through by Monti's government. Youth unemployment is at 36.5 percent; the economy — Europe's third-largest — is in recession, and its public debt hit €2 trillion in October, the second-highest debt-to-GDP ratio of the eurozone behind only Greece.
In addition, much of Italy's political class has been discredited by a series of corruption and embezzlement scandals, and some of those who are left have already begun what portends to be an ugly campaign season.
"I expect that there will be a sense of limited and measured responses to political confrontations, avoiding destructive positions and reciprocal invectives," Napolitano warned.
The invectives were already flying by Monday, with Berlusconi taking to the airwaves on multiple fronts — radio, television, Twitter and his own websites — to try to discredit Monti and his center-left opponents and assert his vision of returning Italy to its people.
Monti, for his part, issued an 18-page, end-of-the-year summary boasting of his government's achievements and, separately, tweeted that his new movement was "civic, popular and responsible."