Protests as Mario Monti crisis plan looms

 

As protests erupted in Rome and other cities, Italy's new premier
unveiled his economic plan, vowing to spur growth yet fairly
spread the sacrifices Italians must accept to save their country from
bankruptcy and the eurozone from a disastrous collapse.

As Mario Monti spoke, riot police clashed with anti-austerity protesters in Milan, signaling the depths of resistance the economist-turned-premier will have to overcome if his plan is to succeed.

"The end of the euro would cause the disintegration of the united market," the former European Union competition commissioner told the Senate ahead of a confidence vote on his one-day-old government. "The future of the euro also depends on what Italy will do in the next weeks. Also, not only."

Monti formed his new government Wednesday, shunning politicians and turning to fellow professors, bankers and business executives to fill key cabinet posts.

A day later he revealed plans to fight tax evasion, lower costs for companies so they can hire more and possibly lower taxes rates for women, to encourage their increased participation in the work place. Hee warned Italians they must brace for more "sacrifices," including the probable return of a property tax on primary residences.

"We must convince the markets we have started going down the road of a lasting reduction in the ratio of public debt to GDP. And to reach this objective we have three priorities: budgetary rigor, growth and fairness," Monti said.

He said he would quickly work on lowering Italy's staggering public debt, which now stands (euro) 1.9 trillion ($2.6 trillion), about 120 percent of its GDP.

"But we won't be credible if we don't start to grow," Monti said.

His administration must restore confidence in the country's financial future and avoid contagion that would worsen the eurozone's debt crisis. Italy's spiraling financial crisis helped bring down media mogul Silvio Berlusconi's 3 1/2 year-old government last week, after months of squabbling over how to save Italy from financial ruin.

Monti's choice of unelected experts for his Cabinet and the prospect of tough reforms have fueled unrest. In cities from north to south, students clashed with police in protests against feared budget cuts Thursday, while previously planned transport strikes idled buses and trains.
Police in riot gear scuffled with students in Milan, as they tried to march to Bocconi University, which educates Italy's business elite. Monti is Bocconi's president.

"The government of the banks," read one placard held by a youth in Milan.

In Palermo, Sicily, demonstrators hurled eggs and smoke bombs at a bank, and protesters threw rocks at police who battled back with pepper spray, the Italian news agency ANSA reported. One protester was injured in the head in Palermo, where police charged demonstrators who were trying to occupy another bank.

In Rome, hundreds of students gathered outside Sapienza University, while others assembled near the main train station. They marched toward the Senate, where lawmakers were holding a confidence vote in the evening on the new government.

Riot police in Turin reported several police injuries as they held back protesters trying to break through barriers in three locations.

Last week, parliament gave final approval to a package that will reform pensions, slash state spending and open up the economy. But Monti strongly suggested that much harsher medicine was needed to heal Italy's finances and revive the stubbornly stagnant economy.

He indicated Italians would be paying new taxes. Italy's lack of a property tax on primary residences — a move backed by Berlusconi— is "a peculiarity, if not an anomaly" in Europe, Monti said.

Monti, who also is serving as finance and economy minister, said if Italy fails to grow and does not stay united, "the spontaneous evolution of the financial crisis will subject us all, above all the weakest, to far harsher conditions."

He pledged to tackle chronic and widespread tax evasion to increase revenue, but also to further his goal of social fairness. Hiding or underreporting income by the self-employed is rampant in Italy, and workers with paychecks have long complained they bear an unfair share of the nation's high taxes.

Monti said his government would consider reforms to lower Italy's "elevated" tax rates. Employers say high payroll taxes discourage them from hiring.

In the workplace, Monti called for structural reforms but added "we must avoid the anguish which accompanies it."

The question of how long Monti's government will last has sparked intense debate among Italy's political parties.

Some, like Berlusconi's longtime ally the Northern League, refuse to back Monti's government. Monti has said he intends to govern until the legislative period expires in the spring 2013. The League, which is strong in the affluent north, wants elections earlier.

Holding both thumbs down — in a sign of rejection — at the end of Monti's speech was Senator Roberto Calderoli, a Northern League leader.

Pro-Catholic parties have said they would give "carte blanche" to the Monti government.

Some in Berlusconi's conservative People of Freedom Party have called for early elections, but top party officials have said they will support Monti in parliament to achieve anti-crisis measures.

Monti indicated he was looking for wide support among Italians.

To encourage more women in jobs — at 40 percent, the rate of Italian women in the workforce is one of Europe's lowest — he said he would consider lower tax rates for them.

In Rome, protester Titti Mazzacane said she was skeptical about the new government. While Monti chose "decent and competent people," the government ... "is a little bit too free-market liberal. I am a bit scared," said the 53-year-old elementary school teacher.

Public schools have been hard hit by budget cuts from previous Italian governments.

Antonio Romano, who was distributing leaflets to protesters, said the government's strategy is "make the workers and retired people pay for the crisis, not those who provoked the crisis. I mean big business, bankers."

A transit strike of several hours idled the subway system and many buses in Rome. Milan was hit by a similar transit walkout.

State railways said a 24-hour nationwide train strike, called by one small union, affected only 5 percent of the train rains.

Alitalia reduced flights , warning that a four-hour afternoon strike in the air travel sector could cause flight delays. The walkout mainly involved air traffic controllers and airport workers, not Alitalia personnel.

AP

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