Italy: Turmoil after Prodi resignation

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Left lacks coherent alternative policies

On 21 February, the Italian coalition government fell when the Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, resigned. This crisis came just four days after the magnificent 200,000 strong demonstration in Vicenza against the government’s decision to approve the expansion of the US base in that town. The government did not get an overall majority in the Senate for a motion outlining its foreign policy, including keeping troops in Afghanistan and maintaining ’good relations’ with the US.

Prodi’s nine party centre-left coalition, ’Unione’, had a razor thin majority of just one in the Senate. For the last nine months it has managed to get most of its policies passed by resorting to votes of confidence or relying on the seven ’senators for life’. This time two left-wing senators, Turigliatto from the Prc (Party of Communist Refoundation) and Rossi, formerly of the Pdci (Party of Italian Communists) abstained in the vote. But they took this step without a campaign to build support for this action, a failure that has left them open to attack from the majority of Prodi’s coalition that they are “opening the door to Berlusconi”. More unexpectedly, two senators for life also abstained, including former president and ’friend of the Mafia’, Andreotti, who had said he would vote in favour. In the Senate, abstaining counts as a vote against. When the “no” votes and abstentions were combined the government was defeated by 160 to 158 and Prodi decided to immediately hand in his resignation.

More of the same

Fresh elections are not the most likely prospect in the short term. Nobody is calling for them, not even Berlusconi who wants to try and patch up his crumbling right-wing coalition first. Some sections of the ruling class have been campaigning for some time for a ’grand coalition’ or a ’new majority’ which would involve ditching the ’radical left’ (Prc, Pdci and Greens) and bringing in sections of the centre right. While this cannot be ruled out, nor a ’technocratic government’, the most likely outcome seems to be a ’Prodi 2’ government, extending the coalition to involve some individuals from the centre-right. But this would still be an unstable government.

The Prc leaders have signed up to a 12 point neo-liberal ’confidence’ programme drawn up by Prodi which includes attacks on pensions, more privatisation, ‘reform’ of the public sector and a continuation of the government’s foreign policy. If implemented, this is likely to provoke big clashes with the working class.

The Prodi government lasted just 281 days but it was a crisis government from day one. When the elections took place on 10 April last year there was a burning desire on the part of millions of ordinary Italians to get rid of the hated Berlusconi government. But at the same time, there was no mass enthusiasm for the ‘Unione’. Many working-class people remembered the cuts, privatisation and attacks on their rights and conditions under the first Prodi government from 1996-1998. Despite a massive anti-Berlusconi mood the government was elected by a margin of just 25,000 votes.

The Prc entered the coalition government, with one of their parliamentarians, Ferrero, becoming minister of welfare and the former Prc leader, Bertinotti, taking up the post of Speaker of the lower house. When discussions were taking place within the Prc about joining the Prodi coalition and government the CWI explained that it would be a serious mistake to do so. By entering the government it would be lending its support to the neoliberal attacks which the government was planning and would undermine its position as a party which fights for the rights of the working class.

Confindustria, the main bosses’ organisation in Italy, had given its support to Prodi in the election because they hoped that he would be a more reliable tool than Berlusconi for pushing through cuts in social spending, privatisation etc, in order to increase the competitiveness of the Italian economy, overcome the huge deficits at the workers’ expense and push up their own profits. We said, therefore, that the Prc should maintain its independence in parliament as a workers’ party, free to vote and, if necessary, mobilise against the government’s anti-working class policies.

Hopes shattered

Although there were not massive illusions in the Prodi government, there was widespread hope amongst working-class people that it would at least mark a break from the battering which they had endured under Berlusconi. Within just a few months those hopes were shattered when the government passed a budget – the ‘finanziaria’ – which burdened the working class and the middle-class with tax increases and cuts in spending amounting to €35 billion.

Tens of thousands of workers, pensioners, students and middle-class people took to the streets to protest at the ‘finanziaria’. When leaders of the three main trade union federations, Cgil.Cisl and Uil, went to the famous Mirafiori Fiat plant in Turin to try and ’sell’ the budget to the workers there, they were heckled by their own members.

The ‘finanziaria’ marked a turning point. Tens of thousands of working-class people no longer believed the trade union leaders when they said that the Prodi government was a "friendly government". After the budget, under pressure from the bosses’ organisation Confindustria, the IMF and the EU, the government began to prepare for ’ Phase 2’ – an anti-working class offensive involving attacks on pensions, more privatisation and ’reform’ of the public sector.

Foreign policy

It was against this background that Prodi gave the green light to doubling the size of the US base at Vicenza, igniting a local revolt which culminated in the huge national demonstration on 17 February. The overwhelming majority of local people, at least 40,000 of whom were on the national demo, oppose what would be, in effect, a US military occupation of their town. With the government slashing social spending while increasing military spending and the US announcing that troops would be leaving Vicenza for the spring offensive against the Taliban, it was clear that the two issues of Vicenza and maintaining Italian troops in Afghanistan were inextricably linked.

Most Italians are also opposed to enlarging the base and want to see Italian troops withdrawn from Afghanistan. But Prodi ignored the mass protests, saying that he would not back down. There was growing anger, not just in Vicenza but more widely, that his government was prepared to bow down to the diktats of US imperialism and big business but was ’ deaf ’ when it came to the views of ordinary people.

Throughout all this time the Prc continued to support the Prodi government’s anti-working class, pro-imperialist policies. At the time of the last vote on refinancing the troops in Afghanistan, in July last year, the government had only been in power for three months. Its true anti-working class character was not yet clear to most ordinary Italians. If, at that stage, the Prc had voted against the bill in the Senate (which had a vote of confidence attached to it) and the Prodi government had fallen, bringing about a return of Berlusconi, it would not have been understood by the majority of workers. They would have blamed the Prc for allowing Berlusconi to come back to power when they had only just voted to get rid of him!

However, we argued that the Prc should have launched a massive campaign to warn and mobilise against the future attacks which the government was clearly planning against the working class. But instead of mobilising and preparing workers to oppose those policies, through mass meetings, protests etc, the Prc relied on ’Parliamentary persuasion’, arguing that by being in the government they were preventing Prodi from moving further to the right. In fact, rather than the Prc holding back Prodi, Prodi has been using the Prc and the leaders of the main trade union federations to hold back the working class from fighting against the government’s policies.

Following the ‘finanziaria’ and Vicenza there was a clear shift in the mood of working-class people, with more and more workers becoming aware of whose interests the Prodi government really represented. But although there was anger and disillusionment amongst broader layers of the working-class, there was also the fear that Berlusconi would return because there was no other alternative on offer.

Prc fails

The Prc has had nine months to build that alternative – to mobilise the working class against the government’s attacks, to give a lead to the protests which have developed from below, to re-establish its reputation as a radical, fighting organisation and to lay the basis for its development as a mass workers’ party offering a real socialist alternative to both the Berlusconi and the Prodi brands of neo-liberalism.

Instead of unifying and expanding the struggles against the ‘finanziaria’, the Prc leaders and the leaders of the main trade union federations, argued that the budget was the best that could be achieved ’under the circumstances’. As a consequence, they allowed Berlusconi to take the initiative and organise a demonstration in December 2006 of between 1 and 2 million against it.

Instead of leading a struggle for the re-nationalisation under democratic workers’ control and management of the failing airline Alitalia, they maintained that Prodi had no choice but to push ahead with further privatization. And they did nothing to mobilise workers against the planned ’Phase 2’ attacks on pensions, jobs and working conditions.

On Afghanistan, the Prc leaders latched on to the vague promises of an international peace conference in order to justify voting in favour of maintaining troops there. As if US imperialism would be prepared to countenance an international peace conference on the eve of a brutal spring offensive which US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has called a "decisive blow" against the Taliban!

All the while the Prc leaders have justified their support for the government by saying that if they withdrew it, the right-wing would come back to power. But it has been precisely the neo-liberal and pro-US imperialist policies of the Prodi government, backed by the Prc, which have led to disillusionment and paved the way for a possible new victory of the right in the future. However, if the Prc were to set about seriously building a mass anti-capitalist political alternative they could cut across a right-wing victory by channeling the anger of working-class people and laying the basis for a future workers’ government.

Vicenza exposed the untenable position of the Prc. Their leaders say that they are "in the struggle and in the government". What this has meant in reality is a completely schizophrenic position, with the party leaders backing a government that agreed to the Vicenza base being built, while ordinary Prc members and some MPs were marching on the streets against that decision!

There has been a haemorrhaging of members from the party and many of those that remain are deeply uneasy at the current situation. It is possible that Turigliatto will be expelled from the party for voting against the government, which we completely oppose, leading to further splits and demoralisation. If the Prc continues to support neo-liberal and pro-imperialist policies it will become irreparably damaged in the eyes of millions of workers who have supported and voted for it as a fighting class struggle party. Many young people already consider the Prc to be just another establishment party while others still look to it as a point of reference, hoping for a lead to be given. If working-class and young people feel disenfranchised, if they feel that there is no party that is prepared to fight for their interests and to represent them it could lead to demoralisation and even support for nihilistic and terroristic ideas.

The threat of such a turn, repeating the experience of the past in Italy, should not be exaggerated, but is very real. The recent arrest of 15 people for alleged membership of a terrorist group has once again raised this issue in Italian society. The building of a mass fighting workers’ party as a viable alternative is vital if such moods are to be prevented from developing, especially amongst the youth.

Future developments

Left-wing activists that remain in the Prc should of course be organising for the party to change direction and to refuse to enter another neo-liberal government. It could support from outside any concrete positive, anti-capitalist and pro-worker policies, while explaining the necessity for a workers’ government that will carry out a socialist transformation. However, in the short term it is clear that the Prc leaders are preparing to move further to the right by participating in a ’Prodi 2’ government.

This will inevitably result in increased anger and disillusionment inside the party and a further exodus of members. It is therefore important that links are made between left-wing Prc activists and those outside the party – with former members and supporters, trade unionists, members of ‘revolutionary’ groups and parties, community activists, anti-war campaigners, radicalised youth etc. in order to lay the basis for a real mass, fighting party of workers and youth.

Future class struggles are inevitable, whichever government comes next. Last year there was a slight upturn in the Italian economy, with growth of 2% and the Italian budget deficit is expected to fall below the ’Maastricht criteria’ of 3% of GDP this year. However, while there has been some increase in government income from a clamp down on tax evasion, this is mainly a cyclical improvement in the economy.

Italy still lags behind other European countries in terms of growth and competitiveness. A crisis in the US and world economy would have a devastating effect on Italy which is heavily dependent on exports. The capitalist class are therefore determined that the government should push ahead with the structural counter reforms that were left out of the ‘finanziaria’ – in particular raising the pension age, extending privatisation and attacking the public sector. This will place it on a collision course with the working class, with the prospect of mass movements from which a mass workers’ party and the forces of revolutionary socialism can be built.

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