Italy: New Prodi government sworn in

Workers’ representatives will have to fight for real change

More than five weeks after the general election in Italy, the victorious centre-left coalition of parties known as the ‘Union’ has been able to form a government.

Romano Prodi has been sworn as prime minister and a new era in Italian politics opens up. But what are the prospects for this government and for the long-suffering workers and young people of Italy?

As explained in previous articles nearly 40 million Italians voted on 9 and 10 April – almost 84% of the electorate compared with just over 81% in 2001. Yet, for the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Italy’s parliament, the ‘Union’ gained a bare 25,000 votes more than the ‘House of Liberties’ coalition of the right. The centre left has a working majority of 67 MPs, thanks only to changes in the electoral law made by the previous government in an attempt to bolster the chances of the out-going right wing parties being able to form a new government!

In the upper house or Senate – elected differently (by voters of 25 and over), but having equal legislative powers to those of the Chamber of Deputies – the government coalition has a fragile majority of just two seats. This includes certain ‘independents’ and appointed ‘Senators for life’, of whom the new president was one. The record number of government posts allocated by Prodi – over 90 in total – indicate the balancing act he will be trying to perform in holding his eight-party team together and preventing the defeated right-wing under Berlusconi from returning to power.

The balloting for Speakers of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies held two weeks ago and this last week’s voting for the country’s president were all the subject of much contention, manoeuvring and re-balloting. The next hurdle was the votes of confidence to be held in both houses of parliament. The government was confirmed in the upper house thanks only to the votes of the appointed senators for life and the representatives of the Italians overseas (including one who lives in Argentina!).

The president taking over from Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who resigned after his first term expired in mid-May, is Giorgio Napolitano – the first 80 year-old and the first ex-communist head of state in Italy’s history. He claims to be the ‘president of all Italians’ and as a member of the ex-communist ‘Democrats of the Left’ (DS), he represents no threat to the capitalist class of Italy and their interests. He served them well as interior minister in Prodi’s last government – that of 1996 – which introduced real attacks on workers’ rights and living standards. But the truculent out-going prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, would not even endorse this ‘compromise’ candidate. Most of the right wing parliamentarians and regional heads eligible to vote for the president put blank cards in the ballot boxes!

After 5 years of Berlusconi, why did the left not sweep the board in the election?

Given the depth of feeling against the previous right-wing government of billionaire tycoon and swindler, Silvio Berlusconi, the parties of the left should have swept the board in the elections of April 9 and 10. In the preceding five years, practically every layer of the working class, many layers of the intelligentsia and middle class and millions of students and young people had shown their mass opposition to its policies – on the streets, in strike and general strike struggles and in the local elections that took place.

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 his seat. (See analyses in previous issues of Socialism Today and on the web-site of the CWI). Many went to the polls now determined to unseat him through the ballot box.

The Refoundation Communists polled 2,229,604 votes for the Chamber (an increase of 361,000 over 2001). Its ex-comrades of the ‘Italian Communists’ (Pdci) got 884,912. This meant the vote for the Rc and Pdci combined was on a par with the 8% for the Rc in 1996, before the Cossutta ‘communists’ split off to the right to continue supporting the privatising and cutting Olive Tree government under Prodi. In the Senate, where the Pdci did not stand separately on its own platform, and where the Rc then appeared as the only list using the traditional hammer and sickle emblem, the Rc vote increased by 809,000, reaching 2,518,624. All this indicates a large number of voters wanting to defeat Berlusconi and also voting for the party seen to be the most to the left.

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

But there was not as determined a mood on the part of 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 leaders of Refoundation to remain loyal to a Prodi government. Many remembered the record of the last Prodi government and its neo-liberal attacks and did not see any real difference between the two major blocks.

This accounts for the apparent stale-mate that has resulted. Waverers may well have been affected at the last minute by the scare-mongering 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 in which Italy finds itself, he spoke of increasing taxes and ‘cutting the cost of labour’.

The bosses’ plans and what the workers’ parties should fight for

As president of the European Commission for five years from 1991 and as prime minister in Italy from 1996 to 1998, Romano Prodi has shown 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 Italian 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 of Italy rather than the smaller ones who favoured Berlusconi in the recent past.

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

Unfortunately, the ‘refounded’ communists under Fausto Bertinotti, ran their election campaign on extremely vague policies under the slogan ‘You bet Italy can really change’. With Bertinotti’s support given to the vague and wordy programme of the Union alliance, without reference to a congress of the party, there was no commitment to pursue even the minimum demands of the anti-Berlusconi movements. One such would have been the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq – no ‘ifs’ no ‘buts’. Another would have been abolition, not review, of the Moratti reforms. These have meant privatisation measures right across the Italian education system and the removal of the democratic self-management mechanisms achieved in the period of the big struggles of the late ‘60s and 1970s.

Abolition of the Biagi laws or Law 30 should have been a central part of the Rc’s ‘bottom line’ as far as programme was concerned, and still should be. It has allowed employers to take on young workers without fixed contracts, resembling the notorious CPE proposals of the Chirac/de Villepin government in France, defeated by the recent mass movement there. MPs of RC 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 not left the scene just with the arrival of a new government. Eight hour strikes across Italy went ahead on 28 April and again on 18 May for a monthly increase of €111. The country’s municipal busses, trams and underground systems came to a halt.

But the over-riding mood at the top of the big federations is to go for ‘concertazione’ – sitting round tables with bosses and the government to do deals which will crush the demands of the workers to see some results from a change in government. Given the graveness of the economic situation and the long period in which big sacrifices have been demanded of Italy’s working class, new class battles are almost inevitable.

Last time round, the centre-left Olive Tree government enjoyed a long ‘honey-moon’ period. In fact, there were no major strikes even when the government began to introduce neo-liberal cuts and privatisations. There was eventually the political revolt of the Rc itself, who had supported the centre-left government’s policies from outside. It withdrew support in parliament which led to the government losing the confidence of the majority. But, since the result was the victory of the hated Berlusconi government, many workers blamed the Rc rather than the attacks of the government which no workers’ party could support.

Dire economic situation

The European Union leaders and now the IMF are baying for immediate measures to sanitise the country’s debts and deficits. The Corriere della Sera has spoken of this as a ‘Mission Impossible’. One Italian economist has described the task facing Romano Prodi and his new finance minister, 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, “Only last week, the International Monetary Fund painted Italy’s economic picture with what La Repubblica called ‘pitiless clarity’: the deficit, it forecast, would be 4% of GDP this year, 1% above the Eurozone limit, rising to 4.7% in 2007, with public debt at 106.9% of GDP next year and 107.6% in 2008. Raghuram Rajan the IMF chief economist, told the incoming government that it would have to be ‘on a war footing’”.

The Times continues: “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 and 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 the competition of cheap labour goods such as garments and shoes. These are produced largely by small firms that have given their support to Berlusconi. He in turn is recruiting their support for a tax strike as another ruse for sabotaging and bringing down the Prodi government.

Berlusconi’s path back must be blocked by mass action and a fighting socialist/communist programme

The defeated prime minister has shown himself to be an extremely ‘ungracious’ loser. As James Waltson of the American University in Rome put it: “If you have been a master of the universe, not only Italy’s richest man and owner of AC Milan, but also on first name terms with Blair, Bush and Putin, a global figure, it’s hard to give all that up and either be leader of the opposition or return to business”.

But there are other 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 both the state-run channels and his own Mediaset company. They could now be reversed, although this looks highly unlikely. Bertinotti had his wrists sharply slapped by Prodi for even suggesting that Mediaset should be ‘slimmed down’. But Berlusconi would undoubtedly rest happier if he was back in the saddle of government and in control.

One of the most important reasons must be the very real prospect that haunts him 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!

An English satirist made up a few entries in the diary of Silvio Berlusconi in the days following the election:

…Giovedi (Thursday). In the morning, my new election agent brings me the telephone. Things grow desperate. I must consolidate my position internationally.

“Tony!” I say. “My beautiful Tony! Too long, my friend! What is it that keeps you and your …wife from my side?”

Tony is speaking very quietly. “Silvio,” he almost whispers. “Great to hear from you! Sincerely, yeah? It’s just, all this business with Tessa’s husband? It’s probably not a great idea that we speak.”

“Ha!” I roar. “So you can buy your way into the House of Lords in Britain, but not out of the court?”

“Silvio!” breathes Tony. “Please don’t say things like that!”…..

More shocking than Berlusconi’s buffoonery (and his crushing of any satire in his own media world) has been his constant attempts to organise a return to power. Shocking, too, is the fact that his manoeuvrings have been allowed to go unchallenged without any attempt by the left parties to appeal to workers and young people to come onto the streets to show their indignation at the very thought of this.

Berlusconi was in effect trying to carry out a bloodless coup against the democratically-elected government by wheeling out Giulio Andreotti as candidate for Speaker of the Senate. This ‘Prince of Darkness’ is a proven Mafia associate, even from the times when he was prime minister but could have drawn support from one time colleagues in the old, corrupt Christian Democracy. The attempt failed, but no left party lifted a little finger to call for mass protests on the streets to block the path of the right.

The Rc and the left should be prepared to mobilise in the event of Berlusconi trying any more of his tricks to trample under foot the democratic verdict of the electorate. Close to a stalemate it may be, but in a democracy a majority is a majority! It is another question as to whether a ‘left’ government should be supported not only when it carries out genuine reforms, but when it begins to attack the working class.

What can we expect from the Rc in this new situation?

The Rc’s leader, Fausto Bertinotti, has repeated his oath of loyalty to the ‘Union’ government …for the full term of five years. This means regardless of the anti-working class policies the government is bound to drive through. It may not last more than a few weeks, let alone a few years. It will be a weak government, teetering on the edge of crisis throughout its life. It will be the job of Bertinotti, having pushed to become Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies to police the centre-left MPs, to whip them into line and to do all in his power to save the life of the capitalists’ Prodi government!

And no shame! The paper of the Rc – Liberazione – radiates joy at the current state of affairs, with the RC as the second largest 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 more frontally even than the previous government.

Bertinotti unfortunately appears to be perfectly at home in his new role as leader of the Chamber of Deputies. It fell to him, in the absence of a duly 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 Chavez. More delight expressed in the pages of Liberazione!

Tensions and fissures will develop in the workers’ party

A Bertinotti supporter, Franco Giordano has been elected to take over as General Secretary of the Rc with 68% support. The largest opposition formation within the 40% of delegates who were opposed to Bertinotti at the 2005 party Congress is the ‘Ernesto’ faction. They come from a Stalinist back-ground and commanded a quarter of the congress votes. Along with the Mandelite ‘Erre’ (or ‘Critical Left’) they had objected to participation in a centre-left government without discussion and agreement in the party.

But these two groupings now appear to accept the situation – not just supporting the formation of a new government to replace Berlusconi but in favour of participating in it. The Union ranges from the ‘radical’ Catholic, capitalist Daisy party (Margherita) through the Democrats of the Left (DS) to the Pdci (also represented in the cabinet) as well as their own party still winning its main support from workers because of its communist and class struggle credentials.

In the wake of the election, ‘Ernesto’ statements talk of a “new phase” opening up in the life of the party, the need to work together and “leave differences behind”. The ‘Erre’ faction ambiguously pronounces that the Prodi 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 the neo-liberal government of Prodi. But they seem more concerned about the proposed merger of the DS with the Margherita to form a US-style Democratic Party – a move which now 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 and Martello, would mean the disappearance of Italy’s “main mass workers’ party” (sic!) – the DS.

Unfortunately, the DS has long taken the road of being a capitalist party, even while maintaining a layer of support amongst workers. (Some workers in Britain have ‘traditionally’ supported the Tories, even joined them and their trade union wing. But that has never made the Conservative Party a workers’ party!). An appeal can nevertheless be made to those workers who still ‘traditionally’ vote DS to support genuine socialist and communist forces.

It is also unfortunate that none of the opposition groups in the Rc has a sensitive, transitional approach. They have not been able to link the day to day struggles of workers with the need to transform society along the lines of public ownership of the main industries and banks and a democratically run planned economy.

There have been a number of splits even within the internal factions of the Rc. There are now three ‘Progetto Comunista’s. The most ultra-left grouping – around Francesco Ricci – announced its departure from the Rc the day after the election. This was before any worker looking at the new government had even blinked! It is true that during the election campaign, the Prodi team had deliberately discouraged any expectations on the part of workers, but still many will give it a chance to come up with something. Leaving the party at this stage and not on a concrete issue which a genuine workers’ party could not accept, means losing the chance of taking any combative workers still within the party with them. (The Rc still has at least a formal membership of up to 100,000 though with an annual turn-over of about 30%.)

Another ‘Progetto’ group, that around Marco Ferrando and Franco Grisolia, had 6.5% support at the party congress and remained within the Rc. But no sooner was the government formed than they, too resigned! Seven Executive and National Political Committee members signed a letter saying the entry of the Prc into the government was the end of 15 years of the party as an "opposition force" and rendered it "necessary for communists to take a new path.". They appealed to other "sincere communists" to join in building a "communist workers’ party of opposition to the ruling class… engaged in struggles and in the movements".

This grouping calls itself Trotskyist, although, particularly on international issues, it has espoused some abstract sectarian views like uncritical support for the ‘resistance’ in Iraq, uncritical support for the Taliban (in the past) and the elimination of the state of Israel! Ferrando himself was taken off the Rc list for Senate when he voiced some of these views at the beginning of the election process. But, in spite of the lack of a skilful approach to these and other issues of more direct concern to workers, this grouping could have become a focal point for dissatisfaction in the party. Unfortunately, now it has left the Rc, also without fighting on an issue of importance to the working class, leaving many good fighters behind.

Events themselves – economic and political crises – will create huge tensions in Italian society and provoke major clashes. These will in turn put strains on the party of Communist Refoundation 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 the Rc, 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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