Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has narrowly won a confidence vote in the Italian Senate by 162 votes to 157.
This means that he now has the green light to go ahead in government, one week after he tendered his resignation following the Senate defeat on his foreign policy. But this will be a fragile, weak and unstable government.
Almost every vote in the Senate will still be on a knife edge. The ’rebel’ Prc (Party of Communist Refoundation) senator, Turigliatto, who voted for the government yesterday, is scandalously facing expulsion from the party for abstaining last week (see other articles on this site). But he has made it clear that he will not vote for refinancing Italian troops in Afghanistan in a few weeks time. A battle is also raging over the question of rights for unmarried couples.
In a recent opinion poll, 40% of people thought that a Prodi 2 government would only last a few months. Although he could cling on a bit longer than this, there is no doubt that this will be a crisis-ridden government. The 12 point ’non-negotiable’ programme which Prodi’s coalition parties have signed, including the ’radical left’ parties – the Prc the Greens and the Pdci ( Party of Italian Communists), is an unashamedly neo-liberal programme which will inevitably bring them into confrontation with the working class.
Point 5 of the programme calls for the government to move forward with “liberalization”. While there have been some welcome reforms such as reducing the tax on recharging mobile phones, liberalisation is also code for privatisation. The government has already announced that it will further privatise the ailing airline Alitalia, by reducing its own shares to just 10%. More public services, including water, could be opened up to private companies to come in and make huge profits, while workers are sacked and working conditions and safety are compromised in the anarchy of the market.
This could lead to huge battles with workers and local consumers which have already begun in some parts of the country, such as the protests against the privatisation of water in Palermo, Sicily.
Point 7 of the programme explicitly calls for "immediate action to significantly reduce public spending". This is when workers have already seen their wage packets hit by tax increases in the last budget – the ’finanziaria’ – which also increased health charges, slashed spending on education and reduced the money to local councils resulting in increased local taxes, cuts in services and extra charges. In Bologna, for example, renowned in the past for its public services, the ’additional’ local tax has been increased and primary schoolchildren face having their hours cut because there are not enough teachers.
There were widespread protests by workers, students, pensioners and sections of the middle-class against the ‘finanziaria’ which unfortunately the trade union leaders and the leaders of the Prc failed to organise into a unified struggle. They echoed Prodi’s arguments that the budget cuts were necessary to reduce the deficit and restore the health of the economy.
While some workers were prepared to accept those arguments at the time, with the economy now experiencing a cyclical recovery, they will be much more unwilling to make further sacrifices and could go onto the offensive, demanding a greater share of the wealth.
Italy is one of the most unequal countries in Europe. 8 million Italians cannot make it through to the end of the month, yet only10% of Italy’s families own 43% of the wealth. In 2005 the profits of the top 36 industrial groups in Italy increased by 71%! But between 2000 and 2004 the average wage of an industrial worker fell by 3.4% and that of a white-collar worker by 4.9%. Over 5 million workers are employed in ’precarious’ jobs, yet there is nothing in the programme about ending the scandal of ’precarieta’.
If the leaders of the main trade union federations are not prepared to organise action against the government’s attacks, there could be moves to organise unofficial strikes from below. The general strike called by one of the ’unions of the base’, Cobas, against the ’finanziaria’ last year gained the support of 10% of all workers, giving a glimpse of what is possible.
Point 8 of Prodi’s programme is already causing problems for the ‘centre-left’. It calls for a "reordering of the pension system". Confindustria – the organisation representing big business in Italy – the IMF, the EU and the Bank of Italy have all made it quite clear what they mean by changing the pension system: attacking workers’ pensions by increasing the pension age and possibly changing the basis on which pensions are calculated. Trade union leaders representing the main trade union federation, Cgil, and the metal workers’ union, Fiom, have already threatened a general strike if these attacks go ahead.
Conflicts are also inevitable regarding foreign policy – the issue on which Prodi was defeated in the Senate, leading to his resignation last week. The very first point in his ’confidence’ programme reaffirms "respect for international commitments". What that really means is respect for the interests and the world dominance of US imperialism and the big multinational corporations in the Middle East and other parts of the globe.
Although, because of the pressure from below, his government withdrew Italian troops from Iraq immediately after being elected, Prodi has generally avoided anything that could antagonise US imperialism, while attempting to enhance Italian capitalism’s prestige internationally. After his victory in the confidence vote in the Senate, US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, immediately congratulated Prodi saying how anxious the United States was to continue working together with Italy.
While public spending has been slashed, military spending has been increased by 13%. €18.2 billion (1% of GDP) is spent on defence but just €16.6 billion on ’social solidarity’ or welfare. Maintaining Italian troops in Afghanistan is costing €5million a day. The whole mission has cost €725 million so far.
Government ministers say that Afghanistan is different from Iraq, that the 2,000 Italian troops are involved in a humanitarian mission and not in combat. However, the lines between humanitarian action and brutal war are becoming blurred every day. Defence Minister Parisi himself said "there are no areas immune from risk". Italian troops are coming under more and more pressure to be involved in US imperialism’s ‘Spring Offensive’ against the Taliban.
According to US and Spanish Secret Service reports, fighting is likely to spread to the area of Afghanistan where Italian troops are based. A majority of Italians already want troops withdrawn from Afghanistan and the Lebanon. If there are Italian troop casualties or a massive death toll of Afghan civilians as a result of carpet bombing, this could unleash a mass movement demanding the withdrawal of the troops with big political repercussions for the government. An increase in instability in the Lebanon could have a similar effect. Within a matter of weeks MPs will be asked to vote on maintaining troops in Afghanistan and victory in the Senate is far from guaranteed.
The government will also push ahead with a doubling of the US base in Vicenza. It was their decision to approve the enlargement of the base which led to a mass revolt of local people and a 200,000 strong national demonstration in the town just days before the government was defeated. Prodi has said that the renewed government might look at ’how’ the expanded base is built – perhaps moving it slightly. But this will not satisfy the people of Vicenza who are opposed to the base, not just for environmental and anti-urban reasons, but because they are opposed to the militarisation of their town and to war. They are ready to escalate civil disobedience, including lying down in front of diggers if necessary, to prevent the base from going ahead.
The government programme also includes an explicit commitment to building the high-speed train link between Turin and Lyons which will bring it into conflict with community campaigners in the Val di Susa who have launched a long campaign in opposition.
Ruling class interests
It is clear that this will be an unstable government at risk of collapse at any time. The political crisis is affecting all parties in Italy, reflecting a more deep-seated economic and social crisis. Although recent economic figures have been more optimistic, with growth registering around 2% last year, the underlying competitiveness of Italian capitalism is much weaker than its European rivals. Italy is particularly dependent on exports, especially textiles and shoes, which have come under increased competition from China.
A US and world economic recession would hit Italy especially hard. The Italian capitalists are therefore pushing for further structural reforms to cut public spending and restore productivity at the expense of the working class.
The prospect of fresh elections is off the agenda for the immediate period. The Italian big bourgeois were reluctant to go down that road, fearing even further instability. They hope that a Prodi 2 government will survive long enough to push through the neo-liberal counter reforms which they consider necessary. Top of their list are the two major ‘reforms’ of an increase in the pension age and public sector cuts.
They are also pushing for a change in the electoral law in an attempt to stabilise the political situation. Ironically, it was Berlusconi who altered the electoral law to a more ’pure’ form of proportional representation with the aim of boosting his chances of winning the elections last April. Instead, the ‘centre-left’ won, albeit with a wafer-thin majority. Now Berlusconi is in favour of changing the law again!
Ideally, the capitalist class would like to see an ’Americanisation’ of the Italian political system resulting in two relatively stable capitalist parties or blocks that will be more reliable representatives of their interests on the political plane. As part of this process, the two main parties in Prodi’s coalition are moving towards a possible merger into a ’Democratic Party’ – the former ‘communist’ Democrats of the Left (Ds) and the Margherita (mainly remnants of the former Christian Democrat party which dominated Italian politics for most of the post-war period).
Both parties will be holding parallel congresses in April which are expected to approve the merger. The government crisis appears to have given an impetus to this process of unification. However, there are still many obstacles to the emergence of a unified party. While the leaders are united in their support for neo-liberal policies, there are differences between the ’teodems’(‘theological democrats’) and the more secular members and a dispute over which group the party would join in the European Parliament.
There are also differences between the party bureaucrats who want to defend their own interests in the event of a merger. If the party does go ahead, it is likely to provoke a split on the left of the DS with the possibility of the creation of a new left reformist party.
On the right, Berlusconi also talks about a unified party. But his coalition has split apart with the small centre-right Union of Christian Democrats (Udc) going its own way. The three remaining parties – Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the post-fascist National Alliance (An) and the right-wing populist Liga Nord (Northern League) were completely divided over what to call for when Prodi tendered his resignation. The Liga Nord called for elections, Berlusconi wavered and the An leader, Fini, opposed. Berlusconi is still hoping to be able to bring the Udc back into the centre-right fold before future elections but the Udc leader, Casini, is hedging his bets, looking to play a more central role in a post-Prodi government.
The Prodi 2 coalition is relying on the ex-Udc senator, Follini, for its survival. It is clear that many on the right of Prodi’s ’Unione’ see this as a first step towards ditching the ’radical left’ – Prc, Greens and Pdci. It would move towards a more right-wing coalition. Rutelli, leader of the Margherita party, explained in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera how he has a dream of building a new centre-left coalition and wants to open up talks with the Udc.
Following the defeat for his policy statement last week, Foreign Secretary D’Alema of the Ds said "this left isn’t working" and there are some lefts "which the country doesn’t need". This was as a direct attack on the ’radical left’ and the Prc in particular. The next move in this rightward process is likely to be an attempt to reach a cross-party agreement over the electoral law, although it is not certain that such an agreement could be reached.
Prc in crisis
The Prc is going through a major crisis now. The leaders were mistaken to enter the Prodi government. They could have supported the formation of the centre left government to keep out Berlusconi, but maintained their independence outside it. Then they could have voted only for policies which benefited the working class and opposed those which did not, including through mobilizing mass opposition and general strike action if necessary.
The Prc is now participating in a government that has moved even further to the right – exactly what the leaders said they were trying to prevent by participating in the government in the first place! The 12 point pact which they have signed with Prodi could turn out to be a suicide pact. Recent opinion polls show a collapse in the vote for the centre-left coalition parties, including a fall in support for the Prc from 7.2% to 6.5%. All of them are likely to do badly in local and mayoral elections which are due to take place in many parts of the country in May. According to the polls, if a general election were held tomorrow, the centre-right would win, even without the Udc.
The Prc leaders have argued that they have to participate in and support the Prodi government, including voting in favour of neo-liberal and pro-US imperialist policies, because the alternative would be much worse – a return of Berlusconi. Undoubtedly, there are many workers and youth who still perceive Prodi to be, or hope that he is, a ’lesser evil’ to Berlusconi and because of that, do not want the Prodi government to be brought down. 40% of people said they wanted Prodi to continue after his defeat, with 34% favouring new elections. Amongst centre-left voters 76% wanted him to carry on.
It is important to take that consciousness into account. But the Prc leaders could have refused to sign up to the 12 points. They should have pulled out of all ministerial positions, taking no responsibility for the Prodi government’s policies and stating clearly that they would oppose them inside and outside Parliament. They could at the same time have voted in favour of this particular confidence vote, to stop the right coming back, and started a vigorous campaign to convince workers of a genuine anti-capitalist alternative. Instead, by cravenly supporting neo-liberal policies, they are laying the basis for a future right-wing victory whilst at the same time seriously undermining their credibility as a fighting, workers’ party.
This week leading Prc member Bertinotti said that being in the government is not the Prc’s ’compass’. His comments reflect an awareness that the Prc will probably be unceremoniously dumped from the coalition in the future and also of the profound unease that exists amongst the party supporters. In Bologna, the two Prc elected councillors have refused to join the cabinet of the Ds mayor, Cofferati. But nationally it is unlikely that the party will voluntarily break with Prodi in the immediate period. As a consequence, every confrontation between this government and the working class is likely to result in a further erosion of the Prc’s membership and its support amongst the working class.
A further move to the right is possible in the future, including fusion with a left-wing split from the Ds and the formation of a new reformist party. It is not completely ruled out, however, that the Prc could move back to the left in the future, especially if they are out of government. That is what happened when the Prc withdrew support from the first Prodi government in 1998 (they were not inside the government but had been supporting it in Parliament from the outside).
But conditions are very different this time. The working class has had more experience of the Prc in government. Depending on what happens in the next period, the party could be seriously damaged before such a stage is reached. While some workers may continue to support the party electorally, a fresh influx of workers and youth into the party is less likely.
The political, economic and social situation in Italy is very unstable and fluid. The building of a mass workers’ party which can provide a socialist alternative to neo-liberalism is a key question for the Italian working class. How that party will be built is not clear. Left activists inside the Prc will be fighting for the party to change course, to leave the government, to take no responsibility for its neo-liberal policies and to place itself at the head of the mass movements that will inevitably emerge amongst the working class and young people affected by these policies.
At the same time, they will be building links with activists outside of the party, in the workplaces and the unions, in the community struggles, amongst the youth and in the social movements to take forward the struggles of the working class and, if it should prove necessary in the future, to prepare for the building of a new mass party.