Italy: A slap across the wrist for Berlusconi

The Party of Silvio Berlusconi, Forza Italia, took a beating in yesterday’s European and provincial elections. It went from 25.2% in the European election of 1999 to 21% yesterday. But compared to its vote in the last national election in 2001, it fell by 8.5% – a disaster for any party. But, as this is Italian politics, things are not quite so straightforward.

Berlusconi’s government is a four party coalition. His main partner, the ex-fascist National Alliance, more or less held onto the 12% they won in 2001. The northern-based nationalist/separatist Northern League made a comeback winning 5% compared to 3.9% in 2001.  (There was probably an element of sympathy due to the recent hospitalisation of the party’s leader, Umberto Bossi).

While the UDC, the revived Christian Democrat formation, won 5.9% nationally, in Sicily it won as much as 14% of the vote.  In all, the "House of Liberty" coalition took 43.4% of the vote. Definitely a drop, but nothing like the defeats suffered by other European governments. Given the unpopularity of the government over the war in Iraq and a number of general strikes, the leaders of the coalition will be breathing a sigh of relief that the result was not worse. Obviously Berlusconi’s control of private and public media has had an effect and probably the release of the three Italian hostages in Iraq last week played in his favour. 

But in the provincial elections, Berlusconi’s coalition lost in Bari, Sardinia and Bologna, where Cofferati, the former trade union leader and opponent of Berlusconi, won the mayor’s position.

On the centre left, the new coalition led by the ex-communist ‘Democrats of the Left’ (DS) and EU Commission President Prodi – ‘Uniti nell’Ulivo’ – took 31.1%. This, though, was below their 33% target. Although they are trying to claim they are now the biggest party, it is a coalition rather than a party. And the result is still a drop from the 32.5% they took in the last European election.

Parties to the left of the ‘Uniti nell’Ulivo’ did well. The Greens rose from 1.8% in 1999 to 2.5%. The Party of Italian Communists (Pdci) took 2.4% compared to 2% five years ago. But it was the Party of Communist Refoundation (Prc) that made the biggest leap, taking 6.1%, compared to 4.3% in 1999. This was the Prc’s highest percentage since 1996 when it won 8.6%, although this was before the Pdci split away in 1998. Between them they made up 11% of the vote.

‘Rifondazione’ (RC) in the spotlight.

For the next general election, the Prc will be in the spotlight. After these Euro elections it is clear that a centre left coalition could form a government if the Prc agrees to this, especially now with their increased vote. (Although the Italian Communists (Pdci) and the Greens stood separately from the ‘Uniti nell’Ulivo’ in this election, they will be expected to join this alliance for the national elections.)

It puts the Prc in a difficult position. There is tremendous pressure from the Italian working class for unity against Berlusconi. This has resulted in the Prc leaders moving towards supporting the ‘Uniti nell’Ulivo, but Berlusconi only won office in 2001 because of deep disappointment with the previous “Olive Tree” government’s neo-liberal policies. If the Prc supports a government which continues to attack workers’ rights, pensions and social services, they will face serious trouble from their own rank and file and it could even bring the party’s reason to exist into question. For a time the Prc supported the last Olive Tree government, but, after a time, mass pressure forced this to stop – a change that led to the Pdci’s split off from the party.

The Prc needs to take a sympathetic approach to workers’ desire for unity against Berlusconi while explaining that previous experience confirms that the ‘Uniti nell’Ulivo’ is not a solution to workers’ problems. This policy may not enjoy mass support before the next election but would enable the Prc to gain from the inevitable disappointment that a ‘Uniti nell’Ulivo’ government would bring.

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June 2004