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Monti: sober academic who saved Italy from default

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Outgoing Premier Mario Monti, who is leading a centrist coalition in Italy's election race, is a former European commissioner who saved the country from financial crisis but at a steep social cost.

Monti was installed by parliament at the head of an unelected, technocratic government in 2011 when his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi was forced to step down in a storm of sex scandals, market panic and party infighting.

Unwilling to let billionaire Berlusconi back into power, he launched himself into politics in December with an economic programme to "change Italy and reform Europe" and protect the sacrifices made by recession-hit Italians.

His coalition has failed to become the vote-winner he hoped, however, and is currently running fourth in the opinion polls, behind the front-running centre-left Democratic Party (PD), Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party and the populist M5S movement.

Monti is tipped to ally with the PD should it fall short on votes, and could snap up the job of finance minister, a move which would please the markets.

With his professorial demeanour, sober lifestyle and dry English wit, Monti could not have been more different from the larger-than-life Berlusconi.

Monti managed to govern with cross-party support that largely spared him the rough-and-tumble of Italian politics, but since resigning and leaping into the electoral fray he has been caught up in barbed attacks among rival candidates.

Used to the back-and-forth of think tanks and the bureaucratic hum of European institutions, he is still effectively untested in politics, leading some observers to doubt how he will perform should he make it into power.

In a rare candid interview shortly after becoming prime minister, Monti admitted that his mother had always warned him to stay out of politics.

Asked about any acts of rebellion in his youth, Monti conceded that there really were none and said he had just studied hard, enjoyed cycling and was passionate about listening to foreign news on his short-wave radio.

That is not to say that the church-going 69-year-old has not shown his mettle in a long career, which he began as a free-market lecturer in an Italian university world that was being swept by far-left radicalism in the 1970s.

Twenty years later, as the European Union's competition commissioner, the tough-minded Monti took on US corporate giants Microsoft and General Electric.

In his 15 months in government he also imposed draconian austerity measures and launched long-delayed structural reforms, facing down trade union fury and outbursts of protests against cuts to education and healthcare.

Born on March 19, 1943 in Varese in northern Italy, Monti graduated in 1965 and began lecturing in Turin in 1970.

He left to become a professor at Bocconi University in Milan where he became dean in 1994 -- a position he held on to even as prime minister.

Bocconi is widely seen as the training ground of Italy's economic elite.

Also in 1994, Berlusconi's first government proposed Monti for the European Commission. He showed his bipartisan support by managing to stay on in Brussels even after Berlusconi fell and a new centre-left government took power.

After taking over in November 2011, Monti spoke of the need to restore Italy's international credibility and called for Italians to make sacrifices.

He tempered this with a message of "social equity" -- an ideal that opponents say he has failed to live up to as unemployment has risen to record highs and middle class Italians feel squeezed by a new property tax.

Monti said that Italy was forced to swallow "a bitter medicine" because "an aspirin" was not enough after years of mismanagement of public finances.

Italians have generally enjoyed their country's new-found international credibility and an end to Berlusconi's endless sex scandals.

But Monti soporific speeches have hardly set pulses racing and a well-known comedian has become popular with his impressions of Monti as a robot.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130224/monti-sober-academic-who-saved-italy-default