November 11th, 2011
05:43 PM GMT
London (CNN) - In many ways Italy is a tale of two countries.
Living standards in the north are pretty high while chronic unemployment dogs parts of the south. Successive governments have failed to bridge the economic gap despite numerous rounds of devolution. To this day, the north-south divide remains raw in the minds in the minds of many there.
Now Mario Monti has been nominated to succeed Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister, the gulf between Italy’s current and future leaders is likely to be almost as large.
Berlusconi was flamboyant, famed for his charm with a self-professed eye for the ladies. Hardly the kind of traits one would look for first in a G-7 leader but Berlusconi played up his ‘Italian stallion’ credentials because they won him votes at home.
I lived in Italy for five years and remember being mesmerized by what I could only describe as the Berlusconi personality cult. Election after election, Berlusconi’s big personality seemed to catch people’s attention more than his political manifesto.
Mario Monti is likely to be the polar opposite. An eminent economist with a string of degrees, Monti will be cheered by the financial community, beyond Italy’s borders. That’s good news for a place with a $2.6 trillion debt pile to refinance facing an acute crisis of confidence.
Monti however may have a tougher time gelling with the Italian people, who didn’t vote for him. The 68 year-old father of two was, in fact, only sworn in as a senator this month.
Italy needs at all costs to at least make a show of narrowing its deficit pronto. The current budget vote, which cost Berlusconi his majority, aims to balance the country’s books completely in less than two years. However, with growth grinding to a halt, that target won’t be achievable unless something is done fast.
As chance would have it Monti has Berlusconi to thank for the illustrious credentials that make him a shoo-in for the job. Berlusconi appointed him as a European commissioner after coming to power for the first time in 1994.
Yet the fact that Monti stayed on following Berlusconi’s first fall from power proves he can navigate various political factions. While in Brussels, the soft spoken and cool headed eurocrat took on some of the world’s largest companies like Microsoft, slapping the U.S. tech titan with a record fine for abuse of its dominant position.
As a young reporter, I remember chasing Monti around Europe for a comment while he battled to prevent the then French Finance Minister from bailing out an engineering firm called Alstom. That Finance Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, is now President of France and a man who will wield much power over Italy’s economic fate.
As a former EU competition commissioner Monti has spent much of his career fighting state aid. As prime minister, he’ll need to implement reforms at lightning speed or else he’ll be begging for a bailout himself.
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