Italy: Clear victory denied

Workers must act to block the return of the tycoon prime minister

Anger and indignation at the way Silvio Berlusconi ran Italy, and then his conduct during the weeks’ long election campaign, exploded on election night, when, at one point, his return to power seemed incredibly possible. “If that clown comes back to power, it will be a disgrace and Italy won’t be worth living in!” This was the response of a former teacher and mother of two young children in Rome. With votes in the balance, she was indignant. “They are counting the votes of soldiers who are being monitored at embassies abroad and they don’t give one immigrant, living and working in Italy a chance to say ‘no’ to the right!”

Exit polls on the afternoon of 10 April gave a clear 5% lead to the ‘Unione’ alliance – the centre-left opposition with Romano Prodi as its (non-party) leader and prospective Prime Minister. This would have finally unseated ‘The Cavalier’ Berlusconi’ – the richest man in Italy, the business tycoon and media magnate, who has ridden roughshod over the rights and living standards of workers, young people and immigrants for nearly five years.

But, as actual results came through, victory celebrations were postponed. At three in the morning, however, on the basis of official figures, Romano Prodi finally declared “We have won!”

His coalition had gained the tiniest of majorities – less than one tenth of one per cent or just 25,000 votes! Under the new election laws, pushed through by Berlusconi’s government towards the end of its life, any majority gives the winning coalition 55% of the seats in the lower house or Chamber of Deputies. In the upper house – the Senate – which has equal powers but is elected on a regional basis, the majority was also in the balance between Berlusconi’s ‘House of Liberties’ and Prodi’s ‘Unione’. Finally, Prodi got a majority of the last seven seats to be allocated – those voted on by the more than two and a half million Italians living abroad (and registered to vote for the first time in history).

Italy now seems more polarised than ever on political and class lines. The turn-out of 84% was high, even by Italian standards. In ‘red’ Bologna, it was 90%. Emilia Romagna and Tuscany went solidly for the ‘left’ and traditional right-wing areas, like Lombardy and Veneto, came out in force. Berlusconi’s party – Forza Italia – fared much worse than in the last election, but the centre left parties failed to capitalise on his unpopularity. Unless workers and young people take things into their own hands, Italy is confronted with a period of weak, unstable governments and political and economic crises.

Prodi government will favour big business

The Prodi alliance – with its Catholic democrats, Greens, ex-‘communists’ and Refoundation communists (Rc) included – failed to garner the massive potential support of the workers and young people involved in the mass demonstrations and general strikes against the Berlusconi government. The wafer-thin majority must be blamed partly on the lack-lustre figure of the ‘Professor’, Romano Prodi, but mainly the failure to put forward convincing policies to stop privatisations and to make the bosses pay for the crisis in their system.

Prodi studiously avoided making promises to workers, and to the new generation of students and youth who feel they have been left to rot in a sea of precarious jobs, scant public welfare benefits and major threats to pension rights. They must draw conclusions about the weak showing of the centre left and prepare to follow the example of France’s students and trade unions, by backing up their demands with strikes and mass demonstrations.

Big business, in Italy, and abroad, is bemoaning the fact that the centre left government will not have the strength to carry through the ‘reforms’ they have promised – including a 5% cut in labour costs and a ‘social contract’ to hold back on wage rises and strikes. Standard and Poor’s credit rating agency down-graded Italy, almost at the very minute that polling booths closed.

Italy is the seventh largest economy in the world (fourth largest in Europe) but suffered the worst growth rates of any of the Euro countries in the last five years. Its productivity and competivity is declining and inflation growing. It has an above-the-limits budget deficit and the third worst national debt in the world.

The nearly 300 page programme of the ‘Unione’ had little to offer the workers and young people of Italy in terms of any fundamental change. The Rc, led by Fausto Bertinotti, campaigned on the anodyne slogan, ‘You bet Italy can really change!’, without any bold anti-capitalist policies or any mention of mobilising around a socialist or communist alternative set of demands. If this had been done earlier in the life of the Berlusconi government, the party could have grown into a major force. As it is, promising loyalty to the centre-left has meant stagnation in support amongst the electorate (around 6%) and amongst membership. Over 40% of Prc members were in opposition to the position of Bertinotti in entering the alliance with openly capitalist parties.

A clear anti-capitalist and socialist programme for replacing the Berlusconi government would have prevented Berlusconi from maintaining power for so long, and from even threatening now to come back into power after a recount. A Prodi government, with whatever majority, should push ahead with bringing the scoundrel Berlusconi to justice – removing him from his entrenched position in the media and changing back the laws which have kept him out of prison. Italy’s left workers’ party – the Rc – must go further and mobilise pressure from below. It should be calling for immediate street demonstrations to stop any return to power of Berlusconi. This means fighting on clear anti-capitalist and socialist demands and refusing support to anti-working class measures that a Prodi government will inevitably try to introduce.

Berlusconi losing it

In a phenomenally arrogant manner, Berlusconi used his parliamentary majority to protect himself against prosecution for bribery and corruption, and used his near monopoly control over the media to clamp down on opposition and criticism of his policies. He survived the challenge of six general strikes and numerous mass demonstrations, some as big as two and three million strong. He demonstrated a craven support for Bush and Blair in relation to Afghanistan and Iraq, and pushed for changes in the labour law to remove protection for millions of workers, in what has become a more and more hostile economic climate.

By the end of his election campaign, Berlusconi was displaying more desperation at the prospect of defeat. He had promised €1,000 for every new-born baby in the coming year. He had sent a 162-page glossy magazine to every household, full of unstinting praise for himself, his party (Forza Italia) and his coalition government and peppered with extraordinary ‘historical’ diatribes against communism and terrorism. He had included in his alliance contesting the election, not only right-wing parties, like the Northern League and the National Alliance, but also an openly fascist party formed by the grand-daughter of Mussolini!

In the last few days of the campaign, Berlusconi made wild promises to abolish taxes, including local ones on people’s homes, estimated to cost anything between €40 – 100 billion! Growing more petulant on and off the TV screens, Berlusconi accused his opponents of having as their idols Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao, (dictators who trampled underfoot the basic democratic rights advocated by genuine communists), and he famously alleged that babies were boiled and made into fertiliser in China. He threw vulgar insults at anyone who might think of voting for the centre-left, referring to them as ‘coglione’ (variously translated as anything from ‘testicles’ to ‘dick-heads’!).

When the exit polls were indicating a clear lead for the Unione parties, one on-line ‘Repubblica’ reader wrote, “Now it has been proved that the ‘coglione’ are the most vital part of a healthy body. Congratulations to Prodi!”

Berlusconi, having antagonised wide layers of the working class and the intelligentsia also failed to gain the support of wide layers of the Italian business class. Confindustria, the main employers’ federation, obviously decided in favour of the ‘Second Eleven’ Prodi team. (This was underlined by Berlsconi’s attack on them at their conference in March). Berlusconi failed to carry through the ‘reforms’ that the capitalist class wanted to save their economy from collapse. The bosses now want to make the working class carry the burden of the crisis, by getting ‘their’ government to do the dirty work.

Although Bertinotti pledged allegiance to a Prodi-led government, it is unclear how much pressure from below will come on the Rc leadership to withdraw support, however small the majority. Last time round, the centre-left ‘Olive Tree’ governments saw hardly any strikes or opposition to its anti-working class policies of privatisation and cuts – policies which paved the way for the second Berlusconi government. This time, there are few expectations amongst workers and young people from a Prodi premiership. The state of the economy in Italy means, on the basis of capitalism, more sacrifices will be expected from them.

Already 50% of young people are in ‘precarious’ jobs. They will be heartened by the recent defeat of the Chirac/Villepin government, and its temporary employment scheme. Prodi promised to review a similar Law No. 30, which is behind the insecurity experienced by young workers in Italy. He must be held to his word, if he is indeed able to consolidate a government, after the inter-regnum period now opening up. Similarly, the campaign launched by some trade unionists and lefts in Italy, to restore the ‘scala mobile’ (index-linked wages), will require mass mobilisations and battles with the employers and the government for its realisation. Big clashes between the classes impend in Italy, and a mass party of workers, fighting on socialist policies, must emerge.

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April 2006