Friday, 18 November 2011

The new Italy: this is what technocracy looks like

Former EU commissioner Mario Monti, appointed as Italian prime minister on Sunday after Silvio Berlusconi was forced by the markets and EU leaders to resign, had his ‘technocrat government’ approved by the Italian parliament today.

Neither Monti nor the members of his cabinet have been elected by the Italian people. They are not politicians but instead experts in their respective fields. The 'government of experts' has been brought in because, it was thought, both within and outside Italy, the Italian political system is so broken that only unelected non-politicians could be trusted to implement the reforms EU leaders say are necessary to prevent the country’s economic collapse.

American readers may be wondering how on earth a national leader in a democracy could come into power without having been elected. It has to do with a quirk in parliamentary democracy. Members of the upper houses of many of Europe’s parliaments (their equivalents of the US Senate) are appointed rather than elected. A prime minister can come from either house, so if the parliament wishes to appoint a leader who has not been elected they simply have the president appoint that person to the senate.

 This is what both Italy and Greece’s presidents have done (with Greece’s unelected prime minister, former European Central Bank vice president Lucas Papademos, approved by that country’s parliament yesterday). Interestingly, the presidencies of Italy and Greece are both meant to be only ceremonial positions like the Queen of England. But they have suddenly been imbued with enormous power. An unelected prime minister could also come to power in the UK, if that person was appointed to the House of Lords.

Meet the technocrats

So what does Italy’s new ‘government of experts’ look like? Monti, infamous for his successful prosecution of Microsoft during his time as Competition Commissioner, will actually hold three ministerial positions – prime minister, economics minister and finance minister.

Italian banker Corrado Passera will also hold multiple ministerships, heading a ‘super ministry’ of Development, Infrastructure and Transport. Monti’s former head of cabinet in the European Commission Enzo Moavero has been made EU minister. A famous Italian criminal lawyer will become justice commissioner, and Nato military committee head Giampaolo di Paola will become defence minister.

The founder of the Catholic peace advocacy movement Community of Sant'Egidio has been made minister of international co-operation, a move sure to please the Vatican. The Chairman of the Enel power company has been made minister for tourism and sport, and the former Italian ambassador to the US will become foreign minister.

None of these people are politicians and none has ever been elected to office.

Model for the future?

So if these governments of unelected experts in Greece and Italy work out and Europe is saved, is this a model for other democracies that seem to be stuck in intractable political paralysis? Unelected provisional governments can now also be found in Belgium (where we’ve had one in place for over 500 days now) and Slovakia.

A British diplomat told me earlier this week that he thinks the public of other European and North American democracies would probably find the idea of these “philosopher kings” coming in and sorting everything out quite appealing. But what would happen after a few weeks or months, he asked, when the first thing went wrong? People would suddenly be asking ‘who are these people in office? Who put them there?’ The lack of a democratic mandate would make it difficult for them to insulate themselves from criticism.

It didn’t seem like a huge vote of confidence in the new technocracies’ staying power. But then again, the Greek and Italian governments are only supposed to be temporary placeholders until elections are held next year. But the logic of imposing the technocracy is that it must be in place until the euro crisis has been sorted out. If the crisis has been sorted, then the technocrats will have been successful. In which case, wouldn’t the public want them to stick around?

But in a parliamentary democracy this is tricky, because you vote for a party rather than individual people. Monti and his cabinet have no party. Therefore unless they created a party (the Techno Party?), there would be no way for Italians to vote to keep Monti in power when/if elections are held next year. But if Monti creates a political party, then he’s no longer a technocrat is he? He would have become a politician, and would then be subject to the very political constraints which hindered his predecessors.

At what point does someone become a ‘politician’ anyway? Is it once they run for office? Is it once they’re elected to office? Or is it once they hold office? If it’s the latter, then Monti is already a politician whether he likes it or not. It’s just that instead of having to keep the public happy, he has to keep the elected representatives in the parliament happy. After all, they can throw him out at any moment.

Silvio Berlusoni also came into power claiming to be a man above politics as an independently wealthy businessman, having formed a small party and strong-armed the corrupt large parties out of power. He promised to weed out the corruption in Italian politics and convert the government to efficiency and dignity. I’ll leave you to judge how that worked out over the past 17 years.


Hafeezur Rahman said...

Different and very nice to know the political movement from Euro of Italy.

Anonymous said...

It is a new world we are entering...

Vincent said...

Like the pigs in 1984, the technocrats are going to soon be walking on their hind legs. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that in the US system the President is elected, but the Secretary of States are all nominees - they have to be approved by congress, but they aren't elected by the public.

In the UK system most cabinet ministers tend to be from the elected chamber (the House of Commons), but some are usually from the nominated one (the House of Lords).