Italy: End of Berlusconi era; clean break needed with neo-liberal policies

Silvio Berlusconi, the tycoon prime minister of Italy for five years, has finally tendered his resignation.

The general election of 9-10 April gave the centre left ‘Union’ alliance a paper-thin majority in both houses of parliament (See article on CWI web-site, 11 April). Romano Prodi, is due to replace him but, after the extraordinary events of the election itself and the three weeks following it, nothing can be taken for granted!

All those who voted, after five years of battles on the streets and in the factories, to get rid of the ‘Cavalier’ through the ballot box, have been angered by the blatant attempts to sabotage the results and deny victory to the election’s legitimate winners. They are not fooled by his pose as a grievously wronged contestant in a fair fight. They know him as a man motivated only by his own aggrandisement, with callous disregard for the fate and welfare of others – be it the millions of Italian workers asked to make daily sacrifices in the interest of profit or even some of his own cronies exposed for the criminals they are. Now those who have always seen him as a powerful class enemy, see him as a desperate man, unloved even by the major industrialists of Italy and driven only by fear for his own skin!

The alligator fights back

During his phenomenal rise to power and riches – from cabin-cruiser crooner to the 25th richest man in the world – Berlusconi earned another nick-name: ‘Little Alligator’ (Il Caimano). A film of that name, made by Nanni Moretti and released during the recent election campaign, traces his ruthless, unscrupulous use of money, populist demagogy and less-than-legal methods to dominate the media, to manipulate public opinion and to change the laws which have seen him face trial for bribery and corruption.

In spite of scandalous methods employed in the campaign, none of this could save him from defeat. What stares him in the face is not only the loss of high office and life as a player in the world arena but the very real possibility, under the new government, of law changes and the loss of personal immunity that could put him behind bars for a long time! Little wonder that, in spite of now making few appearances in public, including on television, he has been desperately fighting to stay on as prime minister, lashing out vehemently with accusations of electoral fraud and fiddling.

Ironically, under the very electoral system that Berlusconi himself pushed though parliament, his coalition – the ‘House of Liberties’ – actually got more votes in total than that of the ‘Union’ for the upper house but ended up with two less seats! His own party – Forza Italia – while its vote declined, still got the highest vote and percentage of any individual party in the election. Yet he lost his crown!

Kicking against defeat

When two court rulings on just 5,266 of the 43,000 contested votes (out of 40 million cast) confirmed the legitimacy of the centre-left victory, Berlusconi demanded that the million or so blank and spoilt votes should be scrutinised. He claimed a future parliamentary commission would vindicate his claim to have won. When his proposal of a ‘Grand Coalition’ of left and right proved to be a non-starter Berlusconi then proposed himself as candidate for president of the country when Carlo Azeglio Ciampi was due to step down on 18 May. (Now the new president is due to be chosen in parliament on Monday, 7 May.)

Last week, Berlusconi tried to carry through what amounted to a cold coup – the overthrow of a democratically elected government without resort to guns! An 11th hour plan to scupper Prodi’s chances of having control of both houses of parliament would have enabled the parties of the right to sabotage all legislation and force new elections. Berlusconi’s team wheeled out the octogenarian Christian Democrat, Giulio Andreotti, to be their candidate for Speaker of the upper house (the Senate). This man was known to be deeply involved with the murderous Italian Mafia and undoubtedly also with the notorious secret society, P2, responsible for cold-blooded assassinations of workers and opposition activists. (Berlusconi is also reputed to have been a member of this organisation, which acted in collusion with the state as chief executioner of the enemies of the ruling class). Andreotti was seven times prime minister in the corrupt and brutal governments of the seventies and eighties in Italy, ‘Beelzebub’ or ‘Prince of Darkness’, as he is known, only escaped spending the rest of his life in jail for his crimes, including the murder of a left-wing journalist, when the courts decided they could not rely on the evidence of ‘grasses’ and the statutory time limit on the cases against him came into play.

The ruthless Berlusconi was aiming to win over Catholics in the centre-left ‘Union’ who maintain a lingering respect for Andreotti and were known to feel far from comfortable with some of the ‘Union’’s policies on issues like the recognition of single sex partnerships and the repeal of legislation severely restricting assisted fertility treatment.

The spectre of a Senate led by Andreotti loomed large as the voting went to three rounds and stretched overnight into Saturday (29 April). A victory for the Alligator/Beelzebub camp would surely have provoked mass protests on the streets of Italy by those workers, young people and middle class elements who had voted against the right and already breathed deep sighs of relief.

Communist Refoundation leader takes office

In the lower house or Chamber of Deputies, the candidate of the ‘Union’ was none other than Fausto Bertinotti, secretary of the Refoundation Communists (Rc). This vote also did not go smoothly, but, more important, from the point of view of those in the party and outside who want a clear class fight against the right and against capitalism, the Rc leader should never have accepted this position. No conference of the party has agreed to it and it will only tie the Rc hand and foot to the policies of a government which, before too long will be implementing the programme of the bosses. The major parties of the ‘Union’ already have a record under the Olive Tree governments of the late ‘90s of implementing attacks on the working class through neo-liberal policies including privatisation and cuts.

Accepting one of the highest posts in the land, Bertinotti’s task will be to police the centre-left parliamentary representatives, including the more than 40 from his own party. In this context, his acceptance speech in the Chamber, paying homage to the working men and women of Italy, expressed a creditable sentiment, but, when the government he serves turns against them, will prove to be no more than empty words. The Rc stands for many genuine reforms in the interests of the working class and the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements. But, having vowed allegiance to a Prodi government for the full five years, Bertinotti’s role will be to block demands for genuine change in the interests of working people. Instead of challenging the system, his party will be blamed for the neo-liberal policies that Prodi and co. are bound to push through to save capitalism in Italy. The IMF and the European Commission (in which Prodi and his chosen colleagues in government have served) are baying for a ‘cleansing’ of the public finances – cuts and ‘reforms’ that will further attack the living and working conditions of working and young people. Italy’s bosses in the Confindustria have backed Prodi as a safer bet than Berlusconi to administer the bitter medicine. The leaders of the main trade union federations have already promised to sit at the table with the government and the bosses to restrain the demands of the workers.

Giorgio Cremaschi, an Rc member and the National Secretary of the Metal Mechanics’ section of the Cgil, in a statement immediately after the election, reflected the pressure that will swell up from below for real and not cosmetic changes for their class. He demanded no compromise on the question of abolition of Law 30 which makes it easier for employers to take on casual rather than permanent workers. This is akin to the CPE legislation in France which Chirac and Villepin were forced to withdraw when a movement of millions threatened to reach general strike proportions.

The right-wing capitalist press makes much of Prodi being a prisoner of ‘communists’ and the government is indeed extremely fragile. Investors on the Italian stock exchange have also displayed their fears. But, if Bertinotti’s position is accepted, the Rc will turn out to be more a prisoner of the ‘Union’ than the other way round. Real opportunities to warn workers and young people of the dangers ahead and build a mass party of struggle and socialism will be lost.

Increased vote for Communist Refoundation

The results of the election reflected the radicalisation of the past years. The Rc’s vote increased but could have been far greater if it had shown a way forward for young people as well as workers with a concrete programme linking today’s problems with the need to change society along socialist lines,.

Nearly a quarter of possible first time voters in the general election (around 3 million) did not go to the polls. Although the number of invalid votes fell by more than half compared with 2001. A majority of the under 23s who did vote, chose the centre-left. The total vote for the Rc – the party seen as the main genuinely left force in the ‘Union’ – reached over two and a half million in the Senate and 2,229,604 in the Chamber of Deputies where it forms the second largest party group. This was an increase in votes over the 2001 result of more than 800,000 in the Senate and more than a third of a million in the Chamber. The percentages of the votes gained were 7.4% and 5.8% respectively.

There is clearly a substantial desire on the part of workers and young people for policies to the left of the ex-communist ‘Democrats of the Left’. No ‘ifs and buts’ on the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, for example, which saw millions demonstrating across Italy during the Berlusconi years.

They have supported the Rc because they want a programme of anti-capitalist policies on work, welfare and foreign policy. They must now demand a fully representative special conference of the party to renew the struggle for an independent class programme. They must raise their voices against participation in, and uncritical support for, the new government of Prodi. Given the class battles in store, big tensions and possible splits could undoubtedly develop in the Rc itself.

The members of the Rc and the worker activists in the trade unions should push for an independent programme of genuine reforms including the restoration of a sliding scale of wages linked to inflation (the ‘scala mobile’). This mechanism for defending workers’ living standards in the face of rising prices was one of the fruits of the huge class battles of the 1968-69 period. (The last Prodi government was the one which abolished it!) The famous protective Article 18 of the country’s labour laws was also gained through struggle in that period. It has survived the frontal attack of the Berlusconi government only due to the Herculean struggles of Italy’s powerful working class, including general strikes and the 3 million strong Rome demonstration of March 2002

Break from neo-liberalism with a genuine socialist programme

Those who have suffered years of neo-liberal attacks on their living and working conditions – including under the last centre-left governments – should justifiably demand a government which will reverse all these measures. As a leaflet distributed by ‘Lotta per il socialismo’ (Italian CWI) members in northern Italy on May Day put it:

In all fields, the position of the ex-Olive Tree, centre-left leaders (of the DS and Margherita parties) is almost diametrically opposed to that of workers, young people and pensioners.

  • On employment: young people want the abolition of the law on flexibility of labour; the Olive Tree liberals talk of “agreed flexibility”.
  • On pensions: workers are struggling to safeguard their pensions, while the Olive Tree people foresee “real structural reform”.
  • On privatisations: workers reject them while the Olive Tree leaders think Berlusconi did not do enough!
  • On education reform: the students and teachers are demanding its cancellation but D’Alema (DS leader) says the centre-left government will not put the Moratti reform up for discussion in its entirety.

Workers, young and old, students and immigrants are glad to see the back of the Berlusconi government. The capitalists and their mouthpieces complain about “uncertainty”, “paralysis of government”, “stagnation in the economy” They want action to be taken but action against the working class. Socialists and communists cannot support a government which obeys the dictates of big business and fails to address even the most basic problems of the people who voted it in. A real boost to the Italian economy and the creation of millions of permanent and decent jobs can now only be effected through nationalisation and workers’ control and management.

A big majority could have been won for these ideas in the period of mass struggle during the Berlusconi government. After the nightmare of Berlusconi’s rule, workers may give the Prodi government some time to deliver but not an unlimited period. Unlike the reluctant acquiescence under the last centre-left governments, a revolt from below could develop fairly rapidly, given the dire straits of the Italian economy and the revival of workers’ and youth struggles in other parts of Europe.

What is the point in supporting a government that attacks workers and their rights just because it goes under the name ‘left’ rather than ‘right’? All across Europe governments of both ‘left’ and ‘right’ push through neo-liberal policies of privatisation and cuts in public spending on behalf of the capitalist class. A clear break is needed with such policies. This requires independent, bold class policies to end the rule of the super-rich, the media tycoons, the owners of industry and banks and to bring in a new era of democratically controlled planning of the production and allocation of resources according to the needs of the millions and not the profits of the millionaires. This is the ‘real change’ for which socialists and communists must fight.

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May 2006