Mario Monti administered unwelcome but necessary economic medicine to Italy during his year in power and went a long way to restoring his country's respectability in Europe after the long Berlusconi years of corruption, indulgence and inertia. He resigned as Prime Minister this month after Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party withdrew its support, and now he has decided to offer himself – in what form is not yet clear – for the electorate's approval in the next general election, to be held on 24-25 February. He has already been endorsed by European Union senior figures, including Angela Merkel, and anointed by the Vatican. Yet his political future is anything but clear.
His problem is that Mr Berlusconi, whose scandalous private life tends to obscure the fact that he is a political tactician of genius, has already put him in check. Only days after pulling the rug from under him, Mr Berlusconi offered to let Mr Monti lead the centre-right – Mr Berlusconi's creation – into the coming election. Mr Monti was quick to point out the incoherence of the man who had just stabbed him in the back now offering to put him on the podium, and vowed that he would never strike a political alliance with him. The problem was that this thrust him into the arms of the left, in the form of Pierluigi Bersani's centre-left Democratic Party and its hard-left ally, Left Ecology Freedom, which together have been leading the pre-election field with support running at between 30 and 35 per cent. But for Mr Monti, whose programme involved tackling the special interests enjoyed by many of the left's most powerful friends in the unions, education, justice and elsewhere, Mr Bersani is hardly a more satisfactory colleague than Mr Berlusconi would have been.
The reason it was necessary for someone like Mr Monti to take charge in Rome is that neither left nor right had shown the political maturity necessary to rise above the petty demands of its particular constituencies and appeal to the country as a whole, making the case for sacrifices across the board. A year of anomalous and undemocratic "technocratic" government has given Italy, and with it Europe, a little breathing space. But there is little indication that either left or right has taken advantage of this to grow in wisdom. In an ideal world, Mr Monti would now start from scratch, appealing to men and women of good will to shake off the shackles of the old Italian politics to build a new party in the centre, free of the shibboleths and conditioned reflexes of both right and left. But by cunningly offering him a leading role in his own coalition, a role he knew Mr Monti neither would nor could accept, Mr Berlusconi made such an initiative much more difficult.
The danger now is that Mr Monti could find himself marginalised in the election as the party dinosaurs revive the turf wars of the past and Italy goes back to its old, familiar ways. The sharp rise in Mr Berlusconi's party's fortunes since the media mogul announced that he would run in the election makes this more likely, even though no one expects an outright Berlusconi victory.
Nor would this be a misfortune just for Italy. Despite the Monti reforms, Italy still has one of the world's biggest debts and its economy continues to shrink: its recession is the deepest among the eurozone's big economies. Meanwhile, the work of reform has barely begun. If Italy were to emerge from the election with a hung parliament, in which Mr Berlusconi had a dominant role, and its technocratic "saviour" lamed by a poor performance, the spectre haunting Europe in 2013 could be not Greece but Italy.