Economy & Trade, Europe, Headlines

/CORRECTION/*Italy’s New Cabinet – Politics without Politicians*

Sabina Zaccaro

ROME, Nov 16 2011 (IPS) - Of the 17 ministers nominated Wednesday by Italy’s premier-designate Mario Monti, not one is a politician.

President Giorgio Napolitano appointed Monti, a former European commissioner, Sunday to form a government capable of implementing key economic reforms to weather the country’s worsening debt crisis. Italy’s public debt is currently stuck near 120 percent of GDP.

After consulting the political parties, trade unions and leading civil society groups over the last two days, Monti managed to win parliamentary backing Tuesday.

His government is expected to have an overwhelming majority in both houses, based on support promised by most of the political parties, with the exception of the separatist Northern League, a partner in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s outgoing government.

The new “technocratic” cabinet, which will be made up of just 17 ministers, compared to Berlusconi’s 23, includes academics, representatives of financial institutions, and prominent members of the justice system, the military and the civil service.

The economy minister will be Monti himself, who is replacing the controversial Berlusconi, prime minister on and off for the last 18 years.

Some analysts say the lack of politicians in the new cabinet could weaken it and hamper its ability to gain the necessary support for unpopular measures. But Monti told reporters that this would actually strengthen the government.

“The absence of political personalities in the government will help rather than hinder a solid base of support in parliament and in the political parties, because it will remove one of the grounds for disagreement,” he said.

Monti said he would present his austerity programme to the Senate on Thursday. The aim is to reassure markets that Italy will ward off a default. But despite the fact that the prime minister-designate made fast progress in cobbled together his cabinet, investors remained nervous and Italy’s borrowing costs rose on Monday and Tuesday.

Last week’s jump of over seven percent in the yield on 10-year bonds triggered fears that Italy was heading in the same direction as other heavily indebted Eurozone countries like Greece, which probably accelerated Berlusconi’s resignation, according to analysts.

He stepped down as premier last weekend after both houses of Parliament passed emergency austerity measures.

“In a moment of particular difficulty for Italy, in a troubled global and European context, the country must win the challenge to redeem itself. Italy needs to return to being an element of strength and not weakness in the European Union, of which we were founders and in which we need to be protagonists,” Monti told reporters on Sunday.

Many of Italy’s debts are falling due soon. In 2012 alone, it will have to roll over more than 300 billion euros. The EU has already said that new measures will be required in order for Italy to balance its budget, as promised, by 2013.

According to Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, “Italy has great economic strength, but Italy does also have a very high level of debt and that has to be reduced in a credible way in the years ahead.”

In the case of Greece, eurozone leaders say the solution is greater austerity.

In response to Europe’s requests, right before Berlusconi resigned, his government approved a new ‘stability programme’.

This included stringent measures, such as an overall fiscal adjustment of 59.8 billion Euros, around 3.4 percent of GDP; cuts in central government expenditure and reforms of the tax and welfare systems; and tougher eligibility requirements for pensions, like a gradual increase in the retirement age for women working in the private sector, from 60 to 65, to align it with that of men by 2026.

While the reaction of the markets to Italy’s new government will become clear over the next few days and weeks, the response of civil society groups has already been positive.

Some key women’s groups, which have organised huge protests this year against Berlusconi’s disrespectful attitude towards women, had explicitly asked Monti to ensure a greater female presence on the new cabinet. “In this time of rebuilding for the country, competent women must play an active role,” they said in a statement.

Women in Italy have been hit hard by the crisis. The rate of female employment is currently 46.1 percent, compared to a European average of 58.2 percent.

Three of the 17 ministers are women. Although this is a small proportion, they will all hold key posts. Former prefect Anna Maria Cancellieri is the new minister of the interior; Elsa Fornero, the new minister of labour and welfare, is an economics professor at the University of Turin; and former judge Paola Severino is the first woman justice minister in Italy’s history.

Nicoletta Dentico, a gender expert at the women’s network Se Non Ora Quando? (If Not Now, When?), told IPS that the new prime minister “understands the pathological lack of a female presence in Italy’s politics compared to the European average, and responded to our appeal accordingly.”

The three women ministers will hold powerful positions, Dentico said: “Women are being given the responsibility of the law, social policies, and security. These are the most pressing issues in the country at this moment.”

According to Dentico, the urgency of the financial crisis means new social measures and strengthening the rule of law are essential. “As we are facing economic troubles, we have to establish new rules and laws, and fight tax evasion, since these are all contributing to the risk of financial default. And these areas are now in the hands of competent women.”

Another decision that was welcomed by civil society is the creation of a ministry for development cooperation and integration, to be headed up by Professor Andrea Riccardi, the founder of the catholic international aid Community of Sant’Egidio.

Italian NGOs welcomed the decision as a sign that development aid would be revived.

“The introduction of this ministry is a clear sign of the will to re-launch international cooperation as a key component of Italy’s foreign politics,” said Oxfam International Italy in a communiqué. “We hope that this will open a new era of solidarity, in which Italy, currently at the bottom of the European donors list, can respect its international commitments.”

Italy’s development aid has been slashed by 50 percent over the last three years.

*/Attention editors: This story corrects paragraphs 15 and 16 in the article moved earlier on Nov. 16, 2011.

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