Mario Monti: from crisis hero to election's big loser

Once heralded as the man who saved Italy from bankruptcy, former premier Mario Monti was the clear loser Tuesday of a bitter election which left the staid technocrat out in the cold.

Monti's centrist coalition captured just 10.6 percent in the lower house, bringing up the rear far behind the left, right and the wild-card populist Five Star Movement (M5S), and leaving party members wondering what had hit them.

"He became irrelevant," explained electoral expert Roberto D'Alimonte. "Monti's proposals were not very credible, and he led a not very credible campaign on a not very credible programme."

The loss also appeared to strip the professorial Monti of any chances of allying with the winning Democratic Party (PD), though the left's narrow victory and failure to take the Senate means Italy's political make-up is still uncertain.

"The professor is a flop. A bad campaign and numerous regrets," said La Stampa daily, while Il Sole 24 Ore business daily columnist Franco Debenedetti said: "It was an honest result. Italians simply didn't want his technocrat vision."

"He made a mistake entering into the political arena," he added.

Monti was installed at the head of a technocratic government in 2011 when his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi was forced to step down in a storm of sex scandals and market panic, and initially he had refused to contemplate running in the election.

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

While his governorship won praise in Europe, however, his austerity measures came with a high social cost and his structural economic reforms sparked trade union fury and outbursts of protests.

"Just imagine for one moment if Monti had not decided to enter into the political fray. The question 'who will govern now there is no majority in the Senate?' would have one answer: Monti," La Stampa said.

His followers were hit doubly hard by election results which showed not only that Italians were not keen for another bout of Monti medicine but the loathed Berlusconi had done exceptionally well.

With his sober lifestyle and dry English wit, former EU commissioner Monti had managed to remain distanced from the rough-and-tumble of Italian politics while in power, but once he began campaigning he got caught up in barbed attacks among rival candidates.

Candidates and party volunteers sitting with their heads in their hands in Rome as the results trickled blamed Italy's poisonous political rivals for ruining their chances.

"The parties tried to take the air of novelty away from Monti and suck him into the bitter election campaign, and that damaged us," said candidate Mario Marazziti.

Monti himself had commented a few weeks ago on the change in his attitude since joining the campaign, when he began swapping diplomacy for aggressive offensives on his rivals.

"Many people said to me, and I know lots of others think it, that they preferred the previous Monti, serious head of government, rather than Monti the politician. I agree," he jokingly said.

Economic analysts now fear heavily debt-laden Italy may slip back into the grasp of the eurozone debt crisis -- with a potentially devastating knock-on effect on the rest of the zone.

James Walston, international relations professor at the American University in Rome, said Italy's best chance to continue on the path to growth had lain in Monti.

"Opinion polls and reason both suggested that Italy's best interest was served by a solid, not very imaginative and slightly less severe continuation of last year's Mario Monti-led reformist government. One which would have led Italy out of recession."

But the favourite among international watchers and the markets was punished by ordinary Italians.

"Monti's centrists were crushed... by defending a policy of sacrifices which voters rejected," said the Corriere della Sera.

"Europe's support had no effect, or rather, it had a negative effect," it said.