After one year, no enthusiasm for Prodi government
It may not have been the ’political earthquake’ that some were predicting, but the results of the first round of local elections in Italy last week-end can be of little consolation to Romano Prodi’s troubled centre-left ’Unione’ government.
The North of the country is now a sea of blue councils and provinces – the colour of the opposition centre-right ’House of Liberties’ (Cdl) coalition. In Verona, where the mayor had previously been from the centre-left, the centre-right candidate won with an overwhelming 60% of the vote. He is a member of the right-wing populist Northern League and has a previous conviction for inciting racism.
Even where the Unione did not lose council positions, its vote was significantly down on previous elections, reflecting widespread discontent with its policies after one year in office. As one worker at Fiat Melfi explained: "We were expecting a break (with the previous right-wing Berlusconi government) but it didn’t happen. It’s always the same ones who pay". In Genoa, the most important area voting in these elections (which involved about a third of the electorate nationally) compared with 2002, the Unione’s vote for council representatives fell by 4% and for the provincial council by 8%.
The two main parties in the centre-left coalition government – the Democrats of the Left (Ds) and the Margherita – are in the process of uniting to form a new Democratic Party (Dp). But in all seven provinces in which they stood, the combined vote of the two parties was worse than in 2002. In the council elections in Genoa they jointly polled less than the Ds did on its own five years ago! The as yet unborn party looks as if it will be an extremely weak and sickly creature.
For the past few weeks a debate has been raging in the press about the "political crisis" in Italy. Traditionally, turnout in elections is quite high compared with some other European countries. But this time the number of people voting for local councils was down nearly 3% while the turnout for the provincial councils was 7% lower than last time. It was the centre-left who were worst hit by the high level of abstentions and blank votes.
In Vicenza, where there has been a mass movement of local people against the government’s decision to build another US base in the town, voting was down 10% in the province as a whole and by even more in Vicenza itself. An additional 4.3% of ballots were either annulled or blank. A layer of working-class and middle-class people are rejecting the ruling centre-left coalition but see no viable political alternative to vote for.
The Party of Communist Refoundation (Prc) had a disastrous election. The party’s credentials as a radical left-wing alternative have been badly tainted by its participation in the coalition government and its anti-working class and pro-US imperialism agenda. Their vote nationally almost halved from 110,000 to 60,000. It went down in all but one of the seven provinces where the party stood. In Genoa, traditionally a ’red’ city, there is not a single Prc councillor now on the city council. In the provincial elections in the area covering Genoa, the Prc’s vote plummeted from 35,400 to 9,000.
In the run-up to the elections the government was being besieged from all sides. Last week at a national meeting of the bosses’ organization, Confindustria, its president, Luca Cordero Montezemolo, launched a blistering attack against the political establishment, with no less than 14 government ministers listening attentively in the audience. Many workers probably agreed with him when he railed against too much public money being spent on too many politicians. But what about all the public money that has been spent on Montezemolo! He pockets €7 million a year from his interests in Fiat and Ferrari alone, and Fiat received billions in public subsidies from the government during the 1990s. The capitalists he represents are about to get a government present of €5 billion worth of cuts in payroll taxes.
Meanwhile, the government has done nothing to ease the scourge of poverty pay and casual working. A recent survey revealed that a quarter of pensioners live on less than €500 a month and 11% of families are living below the poverty line.
Some commentators speculated as to whether Montezemolo in launching his ’manifesto’ was preparing for a future political career for himself, just as media magnate Berlusconi did in the 1990s. If that is his aim, he will be the Sarkozy of Italy. While big business, including Montezemolo, backed Prodi’s coalition in the general election in April last year, they are becoming increasingly frustrated with what they see as a divided, feeble and inept government. They want a speeding up of the pace of ’reform’. They are demanding that the government go much further and faster in cutting public spending and privatising industry and services. Above all they want to slash spending on pensions by increasing the pension age and lowering entitlements.
Sections of the capitalist class are now looking beyond Prodi to a future ’technocratic’ or ’institutional’ (i.e. non-party) government which would be more forceful in pushing through their neo-liberal agenda.
Currently a ’class struggle’ is being waged over the ’tesoretto’ (little treasure) – the extra income coming in to the government coffers as a result of a slight upturn in the economy and a crackdown on tax evasion. The ’tesoretto’ is thought to be about €10 billion, possibly even more. But the finance minister, Tomasso Padoa-Schioppa, has said that only €2.5 billion will be available for public spending; the rest will be used to cut the public debt. During the election, Prodi promised that there would be more money for poor families, for casual workers and for low paid pensioners. But with only €2.5 billion on offer, it is hardly going to make any difference at all to the lives of most working class people.
After years of sacrifices and rising profits for the employers, workers are now demanding their fair share from the economic recovery. There have been a number of strikes recently. Some of them are defensive such as those at Fincantieri – the state-owned shipbuilding company – against the quoting of shares for it on the stock exchange. The Fincantieri workers clearly see this as a step towards privatisation. They have seen what privatisation has meant for jobs and working conditions in the former state airline Alitalia. The government is currently selling its remaining stake in Alitalia and also in Telecom Italia whose workers have shown their opposition by coming out in two hour strikes. They are planning a national strike on 15 June.
Unions representing the metal workers – seen as the vanguard of the trade union movement – are going on to the offensive, presenting a united pay claim for a rise of €117 on average per month. They are also calling for a 15% ceiling on casual workers. The immediate response of Federmeccanica – the engineering employers’ organisation – has been "no way". The attitude of the workers, however, is: "If not now, when the economy is growing, then when?"
The three main trade union confederations had called a national general strike of 3.5 million public sector workers for 1 June, which if it had gone ahead would have been the first major national strike against the Prodi government. However, the union leaders called off the strike after a last-minute deal with the government which appears to give public sector workers the €101 increase on average that the unions were demanding. Nevertheless, the payment will only be back-dated to February this year (the national contract expired over 17 months ago). The full amount will only appear in workers’ wage packets at the beginning of 2008!
In return, the unions have agreed to ’experiment’ with three-yearly instead of two-yearly contracts from 2008. This could leave workers with wage rises actually below inflation – in other words a pay cut. Already private sector employers are demanding the same three-yearly contracts. The ’unions of the base’ – Rdb and Cobas – have attacked the deal as a ’sell out’. Giorgio Cremaschi, one of the leaders of the metal workers’ union, Fiom, which is part of the main trade union federation Cgil, declared that the deal "brings into question the credibility of the union".
Big conflict over pensions
The government may be breathing a sigh of relief that it has averted a general strike but an all-out confrontation with the unions over the burning issue of pensions is still a real possibility. A whole wave of spontaneous, warning strikes has been erupting, with the metal workers taking the lead. Over half of the workforce at Fiat, Melfi in the South came out for two hours. Workers at Fiat, Mirafiori (Turin) are also coming out on strike. The average age of workers at Fiat, Melfi is 40 and they know that they will be hit hardest by any increase in the pension age. They do not want to be working on the assembly line in their 60s.
The workers are demanding the scrapping of the ’scalone’ (big step) introduced by the Berlusconi government. If enforced, it will raise the pension age for workers with 35 years of service from 57 to 60 in January of next year. They are opposing any attempts by the government to replace the ’scalone’ with ’scalini’ (little steps). These would still raise the pension age but more gradually. Workers are also totally opposed to plans which have been floated for changing the way in which pensions are calculated, which could mean a 6% decrease in future pension levels. The warning strikes are seen as a step towards a national general strike in defence of pensions.
Although the leaders of the trade union confederations will be desperately looking for a compromise, it will be extremely difficult to sell one to the workers, especially within the Cgil. There is massive unrest within the union and in some areas the leadership has even been resorting to witch-hunts and expulsions to try and stifle dissent.
Future for Prodi
Despite its weakness and instability, the Prodi government has managed to weather the storms of the last 12 months and cling to office. Whether it will still be in place a year from now is an open question.
Many commentators are openly speculating about the complexion of a post-Prodi scenario. Some government ministers such as Francesco Rutelli, the leader of the Margherita party, are pushing for the government to move further to the right, placing tax cuts at the top of their programme. The slight improvement in the economic situation gives the government some room for manoeuvre but it is extremely limited.
Italy’s anaemic growth of 1.9% is well below the EU average and could be blown back off course by a downturn in the world economy. As long as the Italian economy is going forward, however feebly, workers are in no mood to accept further sacrifices. The pressure from them to ’reward the workers and the poor’ – to increase wages, to scrap laws that sanction ’precarious’ working, to defend and raise pensions – is growing daily.
The Prc, and even to a certain extent, Prodi himself, were compelled to reflect this mood during the elections. But while the Prc leaders demagogically call for help for the poor and not the privileged, they continue to cling to the Prodi government – a government whose main aim is to defend the interests of the capitalist class.
Having been hammered in the elections, the Prc leadership around Fausto Bertinotti and Franco Giordano, has not drawn the conclusion that they should break with the neo-liberal policies of the government. Rather, they have decided that they must move even faster towards a new formation to the ’left’ of the Pd – the so-called ’cantiere’ (construction site). Immediately after the elections the leaders of the Prc, the Pdci (Party of Italian Communists), the Greens and the Democratic Left (a recent split from the Ds) met together to discuss the next step.
Undoubtedly many workers would react positively to the idea of the ’left’ parties uniting together. But unless a new formation comes out clearly in opposition to entering into coalitions with neo-liberal parties, it will suffer the same fate of a loss of members and electoral support that the Prc has been experiencing recently. Any moves towards a new formation should be democratically discussed by the rank and file of all the parties concerned, not carried out through bureaucratic manoeuvres at the top. Its programme should be clearly anti-capitalist and it should be democratically organised on a federal basis, allowing all political groups the right to organise and to argue for their own political programmes.
The Italian working class needs its own democratically organised mass party that can give a lead to the day-to-day struggles in the workplaces and communities. One that can organise workers and young people in collective struggle to defend their interests and fight to replace capitalism with socialism.
This is clearly not the aim of Bertinotti, Giordano and their supporters in the Prc who, while talking about ’socialism’, are preparing to abandon even social democracy in favour of a ’progressive’ liberal formation which replaces ’workers’ rights’ with ’citizens’ rights’.
The main struggles in Italy are clearly in the workplaces and in the community and social movements from which the forces for a mass workers’ party can be built. Nevertheless, there is still a battle to be waged within the Prc against the move to the right by Bertinotti and Giordano. It is vital to rally the best workers and young people around a programme for building a real mass party of workers and the social movements.