Italy: Open divisions in Berlusconi’s right wing coalition government

Big defeats for Forza Italia in regional elections

As this article went to publication, news agencies reported that Gianfranco Fini, leader of the National Alliance, which is part of the Italian coalition government, led by Silvio Berlusconi, announced it would consider its future in the coalition government after the prime minister’s address to the national parliament on 20 April.

Open divisions in Berlusconi’s right wing coalition government

Reeling from a major defeat in the recent regional elections, Silvio Berlusconi’s right wing coalition government has started to unravel. It lost six out the eight regions it was defending at the beginning of April, leaving the opposition “centre-left” l’Union victorious in 11 out of the 13 regional contests. In elections for regional presidents, the ruling coalition saw its share of the vote slide from 50.3% in 2000 to 44.1%, while the “centre-left” vote rose from 43.2% to 53%. Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, did particularly badly, with its vote falling from the 29.4% it won in the 2001 general election to 18.6%. Then in a vote later in April in Basilicata the “centre-left” increased its majority, which means that now l’Union runs 16 of Italy’s 20 regions.

Amid calls for the elections scheduled for May 2006 to be brought forward, the small Union of Christian Democrats (UDC) and the even smaller New Socialist Party (Nuovo PSI) left the governing coalition. With the increasing perception that Berlusconi’s coalition would be defeated in the next general election, the UDC leaders are clearly preparing, if necessary, to try to switch camps towards the “centre-left”. At the time of writing, Berlusconi seems to have patched up this particular row, but the longer term prospects are not rosy for his coalition.

The reasons for the rapid fall in support for Berlusconi’s coalition lie in its complete failure to fulfil the promises it originally made to create 1.5 million jobs in five years and to cut taxes “for all”. There has been growing opposition to Berlusconi’s domestic policies and his blatant use of the prime minister’s office to defend and strengthen his huge personal wealth.

War and economy

But the opposition to Berlusconi is not only based upon his domestic policies. He flagrantly ignored the massive domestic opposition to the US-led war on Iraq and sent Italian forces to join the subsequent occupation. The huge unpopularity of Italy’s participation in the occupation of Iraq has been further deepened by the US military’s killing of the Italian secret service agent Nicola Calipari, last month, while he was taking a freed Italian hostage to Baghdad airport.

The Italian economy is in a dire condition. In both 2002 and 2003 it virtually stagnated, recording growth of 0.4% and 0.3% respectively; while last year it only grew by 1%. The Central Bank has reported that Italy’s international competitiveness has fallen by a quarter in the last five years, and its trade deficit has mounted. Italy’s share of world trade is currently 2.9% compared with 4.5% ten years ago. Italy’s membership of the euro currency has blocked the previous use of regular devaluation to maintain exports and limit imports.

In the last quarter of 2004, Italy’s GDP fell at an annual rate of 1.7%, while in January 2005, retail sales were 3.1% lower than a year earlier. At the same time, the Italian government is under pressure from the EU and the European Central Bank because its own state deficit is forecast to be 3.6% of GDP this year and expected to reach 4.6% in 2006, way above the 3% limit set for euro-zone countries. Italy now has the world’s third largest government debt, after Japan and the US, but has a much smaller economy than those two countries.

The euro’s introduction in Italy was accompanied by a surge in price increases. An added source of anti-government opposition is the stark contrast between the difficult situation facing most Italians and that of Berlusconi, the richest person in Italy. He had a total personal income of 12,762,000 euro last year, easily the highest of any member of parliament.

With the likelihood of defeat in the next elections, Berlusconi faces the dire prospect of not only defeat at the polls but also of facing more criminal trials when he loses the immunity that he ensured was given to the office of prime minister.

In a desperate move to try to stave off both election defeat and more trials, Berlusconi is looking to push through 12bn euro worth of tax cuts before the general election. However, many sections of the Italian ruling class are opposed both to this policy and to Berlusconi, as they regard the prime minister as an adventurer. President Ciampi has warned Berlusconi not to take ‘risks’ with state finances. As one economist commented, “The people have told the government we’re not happy with you. The government has to respond to that. The traditional way is give them more money, and that is what Berlusconi sees as the key”.

Important sections of the Italian ruling class are disappointed by Berlusconi’s inability to push through serious counter-reforms. For all the speeches, the Berlusconi government has actually had great difficulty in implementing much of its anti-working class programme. Mass actions, like the 16 April 2003 eight hour general strike that saw 13 million stop work and 3 million demonstrate, were powerful brakes on the government’s attacks.

Now it is clear that sections of the Italian ruling class are looking to a new centre-left government, headed by Romani Prodi the former European Commission president, who was previously the centre-left premier in Italy, between 1996-98. Already Montezemolo, the head of the Confindustria (the industrialists’ association), has called for early elections. Evidently, they think that the centre-left leaders would be more successful than Berlusconi in carrying out neo-liberal policies.

It seems that the leaders of the UDC, until now one of Berlusconi’s partners, are preparing to link up in some way with the centre-left l’Union. L’Union, previously called the ‘Grand Democratic Alliance’, is a coalition made up of openly capitalist parties and politicians like Prodi, the Democratic Left (Ds, a part of the former communist party, Pci), small parties like the Greens, and the Italian Communists (Pdci), plus now Rifondazione Communista (Prc, Party of Communist Refoundation).

Already back in May 2001 many Italian capitalists did not welcome Berlusconi’s election victory. They wanted the centre-left, then called the “Olive Tree”, to remain in office so that it could continue to carry out neo-liberal measures it had started while limiting opposition by exploiting workers’ misguided loyalty towards the DS, the former workers’ party that was a key part of the government.

Prc fail to be principled opposition

As we explained shortly after the 2001 election (‘The lessons of Berlusconi’s comeback’, 6 June 2001), Berlusconi’s victory then was mainly a result of the deep disappointment with the centre-left government and also the inability of the left wing Prc to maintain a principled opposition to the centre-left’s neo-liberal policies. While the votes of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia rose in 2001, the total vote for his right wing coalition actually fell, but that election result was determined by the fact that the centre-left’s votes fell even more.

In 2001, we wrote that Berlusconi’s victory: “Once again poses the question of what the Prc does. Under the previous Berlusconi government in 1994 the Prc enjoyed a swift rise in support, in just over a year its national vote rose from 6% to 8.4%. But it has been tarnished by its inconsistent policy towards the Olive Tree government … [now] there undoubtedly will be pressure on the Prc to link up with the Olive Tree coalition. But this would be a serious mistake”

“While not ruling out temporary, limited agreements against Berlusconi’s alliance, it is essential for the Prc’s future that it maintains, at all times, complete political independence from the Olive Tree’s capitalist policies. After all, it was the experience of the Olive Tree governments that opened the door to Berlusconi’s victory. Only the adoption of a fighting policy can enable the Prc to achieve its aim of refounding Marxism as a mass force in Italy.” (‘The lessons of Berlusconi’s comeback’, 6 June 2001)

Unfortunately, over the past four years the Prc leaders have not followed this political course. On the contrary, they ignored not only the experience of centre-left governments in Italy and internationally, and they also ignored their own party’s history.

After the 1996 general election, the Prc gave support to the centre-left ‘Olive Tree’ government’s capitalist policies, with disastrous consequences both for working people and the party.

As we wrote in 2001:

“For the first 18 months of this first Olive Tree government the Prc leaders effectively allowed it to carry out attacks on the working class. On 25 September 1997 the Prc paper, Liberazione, commented, ‘We have voted for cuts amounting to 100,000 billion lira (about $60 billion)’.

“This policy produced growing tensions within the Prc. In the October 1997 the Prc withdrew its support from the Olive Tree government because of $2.96 billion cuts proposed in the 1998 budget. However, within a week, the Prc leaders made a 180-degree turn and agreed to support both the government and reduced cuts of $2.66 billion in return for various limited concessions. This meant that the Prc was seen as continuing to support the government’s policies and was deemed to be at least partly responsible for its anti-working class measures.”

“By the time of the following year’s budget discussions the pressure had become such that the Prc leaders again withdrew support from the Prodi-led Olive Tree government. This time they did not reverse their position. The resulting government crisis led to the Prc right wing, led by party founder Cossutta, splitting away, forming their own party (the Italian Communists, Pdci) and joining the new Olive Tree government, whose new Prime Minister was Pds leader D’Alema.

“However even after 1998, the Prc still did not have a consistent socialist policy. This, along with the election’s polarisation, was the reason for the fall in its vote from 3,213,748 in 1996 to 1,868,113 – a fall which could not be simply accounted for by the Pdci’s 619,912 tally.” (‘The lessons of Berlusconi’s comeback’, 6 June 2001)

The absence of socialist policies from the Prc’s day to day campaigning, combined with growing co-operation with the centre-left parties, has not only continued but deepened over the past period. The undoubted enormous popular pressure for ‘anti-Berlusconi unity’ can explain part of the Prc leaders’ increasing co-operation with the centre-left. But, while being sympathetic to the working masses’ desire for ‘unity’, it is necessary for Marxists to explain that the centre-left is no solution.

In 1994, Berlusconi formed his first, short-lived, government and rapidly that was replaced by a number of centre-left governments whose policies, in turn, led to Berlusconi’s 2001 victory. Today it is questionable whether Berlusconi himself could make another come back, but a new centre-left government would prepare the way for a new right wing government, possibly led by the ex-fascist Fini.

Needed: a complete break with capitalism

To truly build the Prc as a mass party of genuine Marxism, it would be necessary to warn in advance about the centre-left and to use the experience of a new centre-left government to convince workers and youth of the need for a complete break with capitalism. But this seems to be the last thing in the minds of the Prc leaders.

Bertinotti, the Prc leader, is one of the highest earning opposition leaders in the Italian parliament, receiving 155,000 euros last year. Despite being elected as a ‘left’ who was meant to be opposed to the mid-1990s co-operation with the then Olive Tree, Bertinotti has over recent years been the driving force in getting the Prc to agree to co-operate with the latest centre-left formation. At a Prc Congress held in March, Bertinotti won just over 59% of the votes in favour of joining the centre-left l’Union. Despite sometimes radical, even revolutionary sounding, speeches Bertinotti clearly sees the Prc’s role as the loyal left wing of the centre-left.

The danger is that this policy will only repeat the Prc’s bitter 1996-8 experience. The Prc’s formation in 1991 evoked widespread enthusiasm from workers and youth, and this helped it to partly recover after its 1998 crisis and split. However, today, the Prc’s leaders support for the centre-left coalition is once again putting the future of the entire party into question.

The Prc leaders were disappointed by the 5.5% the party won in the recent regional elections, despite a Prc member standing on the l’Union list getting elected as regional president in Puglia. The Prc’s vote was down on the 6.1% it gained in last June’s euro-elections, and way below the 8.6% it won back in 1996.

If the Prc is seen as responsible for the inevitably capitalist policies of a future centre-left government, it is less certain that it can recover when workers’ opposition inevitably develops.

The demise of the Prc will make it more difficult to build a new mass Marxist party that the Italian workers and youth need. Only a radical change of course could enable the Prc to lay the basis for its future growth: by standing independently, clearly warning that a centre-left government will inevitably follow capitalist policies, and by campaigning for a socialist alternative.

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April 2005