Italy: After Prodi, ‘Mission Impossible’!

Mass disappointment underlines need for workers’ party with fighting programme

Following the collapse of Romano Prodi’s coalition government after just 20 months in office, Italian president Giorgio Napolitano has asked Franco Marini, leader of the Senate, to try and form a government with the aim of drawing up a new electoral law.

’Mission Impossible’ is the general consensus. If the Prodi government was unable to come up with a law after 12 months of trying, the chances of Marini succeeding are extremely slim. With a lead of between 10 to 15 points in the opinion polls the parties of the right-wing coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi are all pushing for early elections and these now seem the most likely outcome of this latest crisis.

Widespread disillusionment

From the beginning it has been a question of ’when’ rather than ’if’ the Prodi ’Unione’ government would fall. Its weakness was partly due to changes which the former Berlusconi government made to the electoral system (hoping to benefit the right) which resulted in a multiplicity of parties in two coalitions with an extremely narrow majority for the Prodi government in the Senate. But it was mainly because people did not feel motivated to vote for the Unione which offered no real alternative to the neo-liberal policies of Berlusconi. It was a vote for the ’lesser evil’.

Prodi ended up dissatisfying virtually everybody. Two budgets handed over billions of euros to the bosses through tax cuts while workers saw little or no improvement after a 10% fall in their wage packets over five years. Italian workers earn some of the lowest wages in Europe, 20% less than British workers and 25% less than their French counterparts. With the price of foodstuffs shooting up, two out of three families say they have difficulty in getting through to the end of the month.

The ’Protocol’ on pensions and welfare raised the pension age and left the scourge of ’precarious’ working (on temporary contracts) to blight the lives of over 5 million, especially young, workers. 77% of young people in Italy between the ages of 20 and 30 still live at home because of unemployment, low wages and insecure jobs. 6 million workers have two jobs in an effort to make ends meet.

At the same time, the Prodi government increased spending on maintaining Italian troops in Afghanistan, Lebanon and elsewhere and continued to back US imperialism, agreeing to build a new military base in Vicenza against the overwhelming opposition of local people and the majority of Italians. With its social base crumbling, the government resorted to increasingly authoritarian and right-wing populist policies against vulnerable groups in society such as young people and immigrants.

Widespread disillusionment now exists amongst many workers. "We’ve had the right, we’ve had the left, where do we go from here?" is how many feel.

Bosses’ offensive

However, it’s not just workers who are disappointed. Confindustria, the organisation representing big business in Italy, initially backed Prodi against Berlusconi because it hoped he would be a more trustworthy representative of their economic interests. But with every attack that has been launched against the working class the bosses have demanded more – more tax cuts for themselves, more cuts in public spending and more sacrifices from the working class.

Nevertheless, while frustrated with the Unione, big business does not want elections at this stage. They do not trust Berlusconi, who is more concerned with his own business interests than those of the capitalist class in general, and they fear that the election of another Berlusconi government would unleash massive industrial and social movements and increase instability.

Instead, they support the formation of a ’technocratic’ government with the sole aim of coming up with a new electoral law. They hope this would favour the formation of two stable capitalist blocks which could alternate or share power, rather than the current unstable multi-party coalitions.

The Italian economy is extremely fragile and will be particularly vulnerable to shocks in the US and worldwide. The capitalist class is therefore looking to prepare politically and economically for a downturn. All of the bosses’ organisations have signed a manifesto which calls for more reductions in business taxes, a ’drastic’ cut in public spending and increased productivity from workers. It is clear that whatever government succeeds Prodi, it will come under increased pressure to launch an even greater offensive against the working class.

A crisis-ridden system

According to a recent survey carried out in 60 countries by Gallup-Doxa, Europeans are the most pessimistic about the future and Italians are the most pessimistic of all. Two out of three feel negative about the future of the country and 40% about their own personal situation. Given the economic and political situation in Italy this is not surprising. Just this week Bankitalia reported that 10% of the population possess 45% of the wealth, one of the worst levels of inequality in Europe.

At the same time the political establishment is seen as increasingly venal and corrupt. Nothing seems to have changed since the ’Tangentopoli’ corruption scandal which erupted in the early ’90s, implicating virtually every political party and shaking Italian society to the core. In fact, most people think that the situation is now worse.

The Prodi government was actually brought down by the small right-wing Udeur party led by Clemente Mastella. He is under investigation for extortion and his wife until recently was under house arrest along with 22 other members of his party. A few weeks ago the governor of Sicily was sentenced to five years in prison for aiding and abetting the Mafia but refused to resign! He only left office after mass protests forced him out. The rubbish that has been piling up for weeks in the streets of Naples is a very potent symbol of the crisis-ridden Italian capitalist system.

It is no wonder that in this situation 30% of people say they don’t know who to vote for. If elections are held there is likely to be a significant increase in abstentions and blank votes. And with no real alternative, it is most likely that the right will win.

But, while most probable, a right-wing victory is not certain. The four main parties which make up the right coalition have been divided until quite recently. Berlusconi is an increasingly unstable politician and many different factors could intervene to change the situation.

Walter Veltroni, leader of the Democratic Party (Pd), has announced that his party could contest elections alone, ditching its coalition parties on the left, including the Prc (Party of Communist Refoundation). Given the opinion polls, this could seem like political suicide; but Veltroni is an astute politician. The Pd is a new party formed in October by a merger of the two main parties in Prodi’s coalition – the former ’communist’ DS and the Margherita Party (see earlier articles). And Veltroni’s personal ratings are quite high (he is currently the mayor of Rome). He is gambling that if he leads the party into elections instead of Prodi, and without the other parties, he can present the Pd as something new – a break with the former government – and increase the party’s vote sufficiently to challenge Berlusconi. However, while the opinion polls indicate a Veltroni ’plus factor’ of about 10% this would probably not be enough to beat the right. It is not even guaranteed that Veltroni could persuade the Pd, with its internal divisions, to go along with such a strategy.

The ’rainbow left’

The Prc is now lined up in the same camp as Confindustria – backing the formation of a ’technocratic’ government rather than going for new elections. This is just the inevitable continuation of its decision to enter Prodi’s capitalist government and vote for all of its anti-working class, pro-imperialist policies – arguing that by doing so it was preventing the return of Berlusconi and his even worse anti-working class, pro-imperialist policies! The Prc has now virtually destroyed its links with the more radical sections of workers and youth. Party membership is collapsing and some opinion polls put its electoral support at just 3%, well below the 8% that it achieved at its peak when it was still considered a class struggle party.

The Prc’s opposition to new elections is fuelled by fear of electoral annihilation. The collapse of the government and the possibility of the Pd going it alone in elections are likely to reinforce the party’s desperate attempt to huddle for warmth together with the Green Party, Italian Communists (Pdci) and the Democratic Left (Sd) in the ’Sinistra arcobaleno’ (rainbow left) which was launched at the end of last year. It is possible that they could even go further than a joint electoral list and effectively dissolve the Prc into this new formation.

The Sinistra arcobaleno has no programme and there is no thought of it developing into a mass party of struggle. It was born out of electoral opportunism and the desperate hope that it will get enough votes to persuade the Pd to accept it as a coalition partner in the future. While it is possible that the ’left’ could become more radical in words (they have said that they will vote against the mission in Afghanistan now that the government has fallen!), it is far more likely that the Prc/Sinistra arcobaleno will continue to move to the right and do everything possible to appear ’moderate’ and ’responsible’ in the hope that the Pd will keep them on board.

Opinion polls put support for Sinistra arcobaleno at only 7%. While it is not ruled out that they could pick up some votes by appearing ’new’, their prospects do not look good.

As the independent communist daily newspaper Il Manifesto put it, there are more political positions inside the party than its four component parts! The Sd, for example, was set up because the left of the Ds opposed merger with the Margherita Party to form the Democratic Party. They have already had defections and further splits are possible, with some going back ’home’ to the Pd itself.

A new workers’ party

Meanwhile the crisis inside the Prc is intensifying. The party congress, due to be held in March, was postponed until the end of the year even before the government had fallen. With the party in turmoil it is correct that left forces inside the Prc continue to fight the leadership on a programme of opposition to the dissolution of the party in the Sinistra arcobaleno and to participation in capitalist governments. While it is virtually ruled out that the Prc in its current form could be ’reclaimed’ and built into a mass fighting anti-capitalist party, a united opposition struggle could weld together forces which could play a role in the building of a new workers’ party.

But this could only be achieved by turning outwards to workers and young people moving into industrial and social struggle. There have been several important battles such as the Fincantieri (shipyard) workers against privatisation and the metalworkers against the pension and welfare protocol and for the renewal of their national contract. Community struggles, some quite bitter have also been waged especially on environmental issues. However because of a lack of industrial and political leadership these have remained for the most part fragmented and localised. Anger and discontent are rising but there is no confidence that struggle will achieve results. Even the metalworkers’ union, Fiom, long considered the most militant and important section of the trade union movement, after a series of strikes, has signed a bad deal. Amongst other things it prolonged the length of their contract and linked a pay increase to more compulsory overtime.

This will be seen by the employers as a sign of weakness and a green light to link wage rises to productivity elsewhere and to lengthen and ultimately do away with nationally negotiated contracts. Building a united opposition to the leadership of the three main confederal trade unions and linking up with activists in the ’unions of the base’ is now of burning importance.

This will not be an easy task. The process of building a new mass party of workers and youth could also be a complicated one. The degeneration of the Prc has had a negative effect on the consciousness of many of the more radical layers. A victory for Berlusconi and the right could initially reinforce the mood of pessimism and lack of confidence that exists amongst many workers. However this could quite rapidly turn into explosive struggles which could become generalised as the attacks on jobs, wages and conditions, and public services intensify and the accumulating discontent eventually seeks an outlet.

This will be the case socially as well as industrially, with movements potentially developing against possible attacks on the abortion law, for example. The challenge will be to give an organised form to the struggles which will inevitably erupt and to channel them in the direction of building a new mass party of workers and youth with a revolutionary programme for socialist change.

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February 2008