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Political instability in Italy

April’s election resulted in defeat for the widely-hated Berlusconi, with the centre-left cobbling together a very broad, weak and unstable coalition. But it is only a matter of time before this government too starts to attack workers’ conditions and living standards. CLARE DOYLE reports.

GIVEN THE DEPTH of feeling against the previous right-wing government of billionaire tycoon and swindler, Silvio Berlusconi, the left parties should have swept the board in the elections of 9/10 April. In the preceding five years, practically every layer of the working class, much of the intelligentsia and middle class, and millions of students and young people had shown their opposition to its policies - on the streets, in strikes and general strikes, and in local elections.

Only the failure of the trade union tops and the workers’ political leaders to carry these struggles through to a conclusion had left ‘the cavalier’ in the saddle. Many went to the polls determined to unseat him through the ballot box this time.

It took more than five weeks after the general election in Italy for the victorious centre-left coalition, l’Unione (The Union), to form a government under the non-party prime minister, Romano Prodi. For that to happen, a new president had to be elected by parliamentary and regional representatives.

Eighty-year-old Giorgio Napolitano is the first ex-communist head of state in Italy’s history. He claims to be a ‘president of all Italians’ and, as a member of the ex-communist Democratici di Sinistra (DS – Left Democrats), he represents no threat to the capitalist class. He served it well as interior minister in Prodi’s last government (1996-98) which attacked workers’ rights and living standards. But the out-going prime minister, Berlusconi, would not endorse Napolitano and nearly half of the eligible electors presented blank votes! This election and that for the speakers of the two houses of parliament were the subject of much contention and manoeuvring. They gave a foretaste of the problems that lie ahead for the new government.

The Union has a majority in the lower house (Chamber of Deputies) of more than 64 MPs, thanks only to changes in the electoral law made by Berlusconi’s defeated government! Out of the nearly 40 million who voted (nearly 84% of the electorate), the Union gained just 25,000 more votes than the right-wing House of Liberties coalition. In the upper house (the Senate) - elected differently but with equal legislative powers to the Chamber - the government coalition has a fragile majority of just two seats.

Rifondazione Comunista (RC) polled 2,229,604 votes for the Chamber (up 361,000 on 2001). Partito dei Comunisti Italiani (PdCI) got 884,912. Their combined vote was on a par with the 8% for the RC in 1996, before the split off to the right, led by Armando Cossutta, which continued supporting the privatising and cutting Olive Tree coalition government under Prodi. In the Senate, where the PdCI did not stand separately and where the RC was the only list using the hammer-and-sickle emblem, Rifondazione’s vote increased by 809,000 to 2,518,624. This indicates a large number of voters wanting to defeat Berlusconi by voting for the party seen to be the most leftwing.

The majority of young and first-time voters voted for the centre-left. The number of blank and spoilt ballots was massively down on previous elections to just over one million – down 60% for the Chamber, 66% for the Senate. In the north, where the right is strongest, the extra 3-4% who turned out voted for one of the three major parties of Berlusconi’s coalition.

But there was not as determined a mood by potential voters for the left. Many were perplexed by the lack of a clear alternative presented by any of the centre-left parties and by the pledges of the RC leaders to remain loyal to a Prodi government. Many remembered the record of the Olive Tree coalition and its neo-liberal attacks and did not see any real difference between the two major blocs.

This accounts for the apparent stalemate. Waverers may well have been affected at the last minute by the scaremongering of Berlusconi, given wide publicity by his own media empire. Prodi played into his hands. With no policies for dealing with the dire economic situation, he spoke of increasing taxes and ‘cutting labour costs’.

Vague policies

AS PRESIDENT OF the European Commission (1991-96) and Italy’s prime minister (1996-98), Prodi showed himself perfectly capable of forcing workers, unemployed and young people to pay for the bosses’ crises. It is for this reason, after all, that the bosses’ organisation, Confindustria, had decided in this election to send the Italian working class back to the ‘school’ of the centre left. With the Fiat magnate, Luca Cordero de Montezemolo, at its head, Confindustria is now firmly back under the control of the big family capitalists rather than the smaller ones who favoured Berlusconi in the recent past.

In his populist manner, Berlusconi pictured Prodi as a marauder and himself as a miracle-worker, promising to lift all manner of burdensome taxes – on housing, rubbish collection, etc. He wheeled out his well-worn anti-communist propaganda about the expropriators and vindictive ‘red’ magistrates trying to get him convicted for fraud and corruption!

Unfortunately, Rifondazione under Fausto Bertinotti ran its election campaign on vague policies under the slogan, ‘You bet Italy can really change’. Bertinotti gave his support to the vague and wordy programme of the Union, without reference to a party congress. The RC gave no commitment to pursue even the minimum demands of the anti-Berlusconi movements, such as the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Another would have been abolition, not review, of the Moratti ‘reforms’, which have meant widespread privatisation of the education system and the removal of the democratic self-management mechanisms achieved during the big struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Abolition, not amendment, of the Biagi laws (Law 30) should also be a central part of the RC’s programme. The law allows employers to take on young workers without fixed contracts, resembling the notorious CPE proposals of the French government. Rifondazione MPs should be putting down resolutions in parliament to push these important demands to the fore.

Some left trade union leaders, like Gianni Rinaldini and Giorgio Cremaschi, have made noises about these demands being pursued, in spite of the small majority the ‘left’ has in parliament. Militancy on the part of workers has continued. Eight-hour strikes across Italy went ahead on 28 April and again on 19 May for a monthly increase of €111. Municipal buses, trams and underground systems came to a halt. But the overriding mood at the top of the big trade union federations is for ‘concertazione’ – doing deals with the bosses and government which crush the demands of the workers to see some results from a change in government. But, given the grave economic situation and the long period of big sacrifices by the working class, new class battles are almost inevitable.

Last time around, Prodi’s government enjoyed a long honeymoon. In fact, there were no major strikes even when the government began to introduce neo-liberal cuts and pivatisation. There was eventually the political revolt of the RC, which had initially supported the formation of the centre-left government. Many workers blamed the RC rather than the attacks of the government for the subsequent victory of the hated Berlusconi government.

European Union leaders and the IMF are baying for immediate measures to curb Italy’s deficits. The Corriere della Sera newspaper has spoken of this as a ‘mission impossible’. One Italian economist described the task facing Prodi and the new finance minister, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, as being "like trying to change the engines of a jumbo jet while it is still in the air!"

The Times on 2 May wrote: "Speculation that Italy will be forced to leave the euro is dismissed by economists and politicians – but talk of an ‘Argentina-style’ slide to economic disaster is not so easily brushed aside". One Prodi aide has said that €7 billion needs to be raised to reduce the budget deficit. Padoa-Schioppa, a former European Central Bank official, will not be asking the capitalist class for restraint, only the long-suffering working class!

Italy has suffered more than other European countries from the competition of cheap labour goods such as garments and shoes. These are produced largely by small firms that have supported Berlusconi. He is recruiting their support for a tax strike as another ruse for sabotaging and bringing down the Prodi government.

The defeated prime minister has shown himself to be an extremely ungracious loser. And there are some very material reasons. The conflict of interest rules have been changed to allow Berlusconi to dominate 90% of the country’s TV, for example, through the state-run channels and his Mediaset company. They could now be reversed, although this looks unlikely; Bertinotti had his wrists slapped by Prodi for even suggesting that Mediaset should be ‘slimmed down’.

One of the most important reasons for Berlusconi’s belligerence must be the very real prospect of doing years behind bars! Under the statute of limitations, time may have run out on many of the cases against him for fraud and corruption. But now the Mills bribery case has surfaced, involving the estranged husband of New Labour minister, Tessa Jowell!

More shocking even than Berlusconi’s constant attempts to organise a return to power is the fact that his manoeuvrings have gone unchallenged, without any attempt by the left parties to appeal to workers and young people to come onto the streets to show their indignation. Berlusconi was, in effect, trying to carry out a bloodless coup against the new democratically-elected government by wheeling out Giulio Andreotti, a proven Mafia associate, as candidate for Speaker of the Senate. The attempt failed, but no left party lifted a finger to call for mass protests to block the path of the right. This should be put forward as a rallying call in the event of Berlusconi trying any more of his tricks to trample under foot the democratic verdict of the electorate.

Rifondazione in office

BERTINOTTI HAS REPEATED his oath of loyalty to the Union for the full term of five years. It will be Bertinotti’s job, as the new Speaker of the Chamber, to police the centre-left MPs, whip them into line and do all in his power to save the life of the capitalists’ government! But this will be a weak government, teetering on the edge of crisis throughout its life. It may not last more than a few weeks, let alone a few years.

Bertinotti appears to be perfectly at home in his new role. It fell to him, in the absence of a sworn in prime minister at the time, to make the official announcement about the election of the new president. On the same day, he played host to the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez.

The RC’s paper, Liberazione, radiates joy at the current state of affairs, with Rifondazione – the second-largest separate party in the Chamber – participating fully, including in the cabinet, in a government that crosses the class lines and is destined to attack the working class even more than that of Berlusconi.

A Bertinotti supporter, Franco Giordano, has been elected general secretary of the RC with 68% support. The largest opposition formations within the Rifondazione are the ‘Ernesto’ faction, from a Stalinist background, and the Mandelite ‘Erre’. Having objected to joining a centre-left coalition without the agreement of the party, these groupings now appear to accept participation in a government with capitalist parties. The Union is a very broad alliance, including the ‘radical’ Catholic but capitalist Margherita party, the DS and PdCI (also in the cabinet), as well as the RC.

Ernesto statements in the wake of the election talk of a "new phase" in the life of the RC, the need to work together and "leave differences behind". The Erre faction ambiguously pronounces that the government, "will either have more radicality, and will be a government of alternative, or it won’t last".

The much smaller ‘Falce e Martello’ Trotskyists in the RC are opposed to participation in Prodi’s neo-liberal government. But they appear more concerned about the proposed merger of DS with Margherita to form a US-style Democratic Party - a move which seems a real possibility. These two parties received more votes together in elections to the Chamber than separately in the Senate (31% compared with 27%). But this, according to Falce e Martello, would mean the disappearance of Italy’s "main mass workers’ party", the DS! The DS has long taken the road of being a capitalist party, even while maintaining a layer of electoral support amongst workers.

One of the three ‘Progetto Comunista’ groups within the RC, the one around Francesco Ricci, announced its departure from Rifondazione the day after the election. This was before any worker looking on had even blinked! It is true that during the election campaign, the Prodi team had discouraged any expectations on the part of workers, but many will give it a chance to come up with something. Leaving the party at this stage, and not in opposition to a concrete issue which a genuine workers’ party could not accept, means that this grouping lost the chance of taking any combative workers still within the party with it. (The RC still has at least a formal membership of up to 100,000.)

Another Progetto group that has so far remained in the RC is the only major faction campaigning for the party to change course and not participate in a capitalist government. Unfortunately, this grouping, while it calls itself Trotskyist, is regarded as a bit eccentric for its abstract sectarian views, particularly on international issues: uncritical support for the ‘resistance’ in Iraq, uncritical support for the Taliban in the past, and the elimination of the state of Israel! One of its leaders, Marco Ferrando, was taken off the RC list for the Senate when he voiced some of these views during the campaign. Nevertheless, this grouping, while lacking a skilful approach to issues of more direct concern to workers in Italy, could yet become a focal point for dissatisfaction in the party.

Events – economic and political crises - will create huge tensions in Italian society and provoke major clashes. These will put strains on the RC which might find itself faced with further, more substantial splits unless a change is wrought in the direction of independent, anti-capitalist, class policies. A recall conference should be demanded now to discuss all these issues. When new workers’ parties are in the process of formation in many other countries around the world – Germany, Britain, Brazil, South Korea - the fate of Rifondazione and, tied to that, the prospects of victorious struggles on the part of the Italian working class, are of vital concern to fellow socialists and communists internationally.


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