New Faces, Old Problems for Greece and Italy

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Andrew Medichini / AP

The Italian technocracy Monti has barely a political base, but he can cajole the entrenched elite eith euro-zone anxieties

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Lacking political constituencies and party loyalties, the two may not possess the leverage to navigate reforms through resistant legislatures. The technocrats still must rely on their countries' politicians for support — which they are prepared to withdraw at any moment. "This [new] government represents a suspension of democracy," said Italy's outgoing Defense Minister, Ignazio La Russa. "And for this reason, the shorter it lasts, the better."

It is no surprise, then, that financial markets have lodged their skepticism. Even after Monti's appointment, the yields on Italian benchmark government bonds rose precipitously, a sign that investors believe his arrival has not decreased the risk of an Italian crisis. "We think Italy will eventually default with catastrophic consequences for the wider region," research firm Capital Economics noted.

But the markets can cut both ways. As he sought to form his Cabinet, it was clear that Monti's power was greatest when the markets were open. The rising bond yields, the cause of Berlusconi's fall, are Monti's strength, at least for now. With no political base of his own, the fear of disaster is the only tool he has to push his agenda through. "The key word here is blackmail," says Giovanni Orsina, an expert in European politics also at LUISS. "Every step is going to be, 'Either you vote for this or I'll tell the country you're responsible.'" How effective that tactic will be in the longer run remains to be seen, and it does not settle the question about the technocrats' legitimacy. These new administrations were ushered into office in what some are calling "bankers' coups" — to satisfy financial markets, not their citizens. "We're going to get a Goldman Sachs government," joked one Italian parliamentarian.

Even more, both are an outgrowth of euro-zone politics. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had put tremendous pressure on Berlusconi and Papandreou, undercutting their ability to govern. When Papandreou called for a referendum so the Greek public could decide if the country should accept the latest euro-zone bailout, Merkel and Sarkozy criticized the idea, adding to the turmoil in Athens and hastening the Prime Minister's departure. After all, the Greeks might vote no and throw their plans into chaos. In Italy as well, euro-zone leaders feared a national election would delay the steps necessary to shore up Italy's economy. Italy "needs reforms, not elections," declared Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, on Nov. 11.

Those leaders who have contested elections since the debt crisis began have lost (in Portugal and Ireland). In Spain, the ruling Socialists are expected to get trounced in elections this month. Scarier still, the discontent is fueling the rise of fringe political forces, especially on the far right, that are openly hostile to the euro. Yet by dodging voters, Europe's leaders could be creating a bigger threat to the monetary union than even their mountains of debt. If the euro is to survive, it must maintain popular support. Instead, unelected governments are forcing euro-zone-mandated reforms on an increasingly unwilling public.

The euro, forged in the cause of democracy, has become a cause in itself. European leaders may some day have to answer for their choice of the government of the euro over the government of the people. They might come to regret it.
with reporting by Stephan Faris / Rome and Joanna Kakissis / Athens

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