* Still little reward for a year of painful austerity
* Disappointment that Monti did not do more
* Some Italians say crisis has had benefits
By Lisa Jucca
MILAN, Dec 13 When Mario Monti took the helm a
year ago, with Italy teetering on the edge of a Greek-style
debt crisis, he was welcomed as a saviour who could finally put
the country back on track.
Disgusted with the scandals, corruption and cronyism that
had flourished under Silvio Berlusconi, workers and businessmen
at first meekly accepted the technocrat premier's higher taxes
and harsh pension reform, confident he would guide them out of
the euro zone debt storm into calmer waters.
A year later, after Monti announced his resignation , many
are wondering whether it was worth the pain as Italy faces an
uncertain political future still mired in recession.
"We were awaiting a miracle. And the miracle did not come,"
said Mina Giannandrea, a Rome shopkeeper.
Italians are enduring higher income taxes, a hugely
unpopular property levy and increased electricity and gas bills
with no sign yet of any reward for the sacrifice.
Many have learned to scrimp and save - at least by the
comfortable standards of more prosperous times - for example
refusing to call the plumber for a leaking tap and cutting
spending even on staples such as pasta. Many families now reheat
leftovers from meals instead of dumping them in the bin.
Rome hairdresser Sara Greco said she sees fewer customers
when it is time to pay the property tax instalments and women
are cutting back on having their hair done. "I have noticed some
clients are giving up having their hair fixed every week and
trying to get a cut or tint done on Tuesday or Wednesday when we
give a 15 percent discount," she said.
Entrepreneurs who had been disappointed by Berlusconi's
unfulfilled promises of more jobs and more economic growth when
he was prime minister, welcomed Monti's pledge to make it easier
to hire and fire staff and to cut red tape.
A recent World Bank report on doing business in Italy said
the regulatory environment for companies was improving, but some
in business have yet to feel the benefits of Monti's year in
"There was too much tax and not enough spending cuts," said
Franco Manfredini, an entrepreneur in the Emilia Romagna
region's ceramics industry, who has survived the crisis thanks
his company's large export business.
"The debt issue is still there and we are not yet seeing the
light at the end of the tunnel," he told Reuters.
Particularly disheartening to many business people is the
government's failure to eradicate inflated privileges enjoyed by
politicians and local officials and slash Italy's costly and
inefficient public administration.
"Near to nothing was done to cut the cost of the political
machine. And this is something that would have received
widespread backing," said Angelo Fracassi, founder of Italian
group Dasit, a supplier medical equipment to Italy's public
"This is my personal, very bitter disappointment," said
Fracassi, who spent the year fighting late payments by
cash-strapped local authorities and cuts in public health
Jose Rallo , head of the Sicilian wine company Donnafugata,
told a similar story of frustrated hopes. "We took all the bad
while waiting for the good which never came," she said.
But some believe Italy has been fundamentally changed under
Monti even though it faces another year of economic contraction.
His sobriety and quiet determination contrast to
Berlusconi's flamboyance, sexual and judicial scandals and
indecision, which helped to push Italy's borrowing costs to
unaffordable levels before he was replaced by Monti.
More than anything, ordinary Italians value the ability of
the multi-lingual Monti, a former EU commissioner respected by
European leaders, to clean up Italy's name abroad.
"One needs to understand where we stood a year ago," said
Francesco Divella, a 40-year-old member of a pasta-making
dynasty in the southern region of Puglia.
"In a single year, Monti has been able to completely turn
around how Italy was being perceived abroad," said Divella,
adding that Monti did as much as he could during his short term.
Divella said his company was resisting pressure to move
abroad despite the unfavourable business environment at home.
Economic crisis has made Italians realise that they have
long lived beyond their means. "Sooner or later we had to come
to terms with the need to be more competitive," said Divella.
Learning to live with less after years of rising consumer
spending has also forced many Italians to return to the thrifty
habits of their parents and grandparents, and some of them
believe this has had benefits.
"I don't know if this year of crisis has only brought bad
things," said Antonello Piccolo, a 39-year-old worker at the
troubled ILVA steel-maker in the southern city of Taranto.
The ILVA site, Europe's biggest steel plant and main
employer in impoverished Puglia, risks permanent closure after
magistrates accused it of causing an environmental disaster.
"We go less to the pizzerias, but spend more time with
family and friends. We have left a bit of consumerism behind and
gone back to some old values," said Piccolo.
Yet, shopkeeper Giannandrea, who now meets only a handful
instead of dozens of housewives in her early morning trip to the
local market, fears it may be too late to turn the tide. "After
40 years in the business, I am really worried: what will we
leave to our children?"