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Italy’s Former Savior Stares at Fourth Place

Monday, 25 Feb 2013 | 12:12 PM ET
Pier Marco Tacca | Getty Images

He's admired around the world for his stewardship of the Italian economy for the last 15 months under crisis conditions. But within Italy, Prime Minister Mario Monti doesn't get much respect.

As more polling data rolls in, it looks like Monti will come in a distant fourth in this week's elections, a crushing defeat for someone widely credited for stabilizing the country's interest rates when Italy was deep in crisis.

In fact, it appears that the former professor with a Ph.D. in economics will receive less support than Giuseppe Grillo, a foul-mouthed comedian with a criminal conviction for manslaughter, and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, easily the most controversial figure in Italy's modern political history and whom many left for dead only a year ago.

(Read More: Italian TV Reports Berlusconi Ahead in Senate Race)

What happened?

Italians are deeply unhappy with the Monti-era emergency laws, commonly referred to as austerity measures, which have lead to a deep and long recession, along with high levels of unemployment. Monti was asked to step in and lead an unelected technocratic government in November of 2011, when markets lost confidence in Silvio Berlusconi's leadership.

Particularly galling to Italians—higher taxes and pension "reform," which really means lower pensions.

(Read More: Italy's Election: Tycoon, Clown or Professor)

Italian Election Results Expected Tomorrow
Voters in Italy heading to the polls to elect a new Parliament that could have big implications for Europe's economic future, reports CNBC's Michelle Caruso-Cabrera.

The most controversial tax is on real estate: 0.4 percent on the value of a first home, and 0.76 percent on second homes or other properties. Berlusconi had eliminated the real estate tax when he was in office.

While many Italians acknowledge pension reform was necessary, it is still tough to vote for the person who requires you to work more years than expected, contribute more from your paycheck than previously required, and yet receive less money upon retirement than originally promised.

In an effort to shore up the country's pension funds, many of which were going broke, Monti's government dramatically tightened age eligibility requirements. As a result, the Ministry of Finance said the average age of retirement will rise from 60 (where it was from 2006 to 2010) to 68 by 2050.

(Read More: Why Italy Continues to Rain on Europe's Parade)

And Italy's infamous "early retirement," which in some cases allowed people to collect a pension as early as age 35 or 40, has been virtually eliminated. (This was more likely to happen among women who were given credit for years worked for each child to whom they gave birth.)

Also hurting Monti is the perception that he plays handmaiden to the desires of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Berlusconi, in particular, exploits this frequently, referring to "Monti and Merkel" in the same breath as if they were one person.

Just this week, a pro-Berlusconi newspaper put a cartoon of Merkel on the front page, dressed in what looks eerily similar to an old Nazi uniform, with Monti and his allies seemingly taking orders from her.

Monti has done himself no favors on this front, telling an interviewer last week that Merkel would not like a win by the left. That fueled his critics' view that he is simply doing her bidding. Monti later backtracked on the statement.

Even many in the business community, who are benefiting from the country's lower interest rates, won't give Monti a break because they feel he focused too much on raising taxes and not enough on reducing the size of government. Additionally, he's criticized for missing the opportunity to open up the labor market and remove the restrictions that make it extremely difficult to layoff employees.

(Read More: Italy Votes in Election Watched by Wall Street)

Monti's greatest sin is his attempt to change the rules and language of politics in Italy, said Franco Debenedetti, a former senator, businessman, free-market advocate and author of a book titled "The Sins of Professor Monti."

"He says the political fight should not be between left and right; this is old-time politics, this is something of the past," Debenedetti said. "He says it should be: are you for reforms or against reforms? That's foolish. Just the word 'reform' doesn't mean anything."

Ultimately, Debenedetti said, voters choose based on what kind of relationship they think should exist between the state and its people.

And finally there is Monti's style, more dry economist than blustery politician full of promises, hence is nickname "The Professor."

—By CNBC's Michelle Caruso-Cabrera; Follow her on Twitter: @MCaruso_Cabrera

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