Italy: Left leaders opened way for Berlusconi victory

A victory for the right led by Silvio Berlusconi and an electoral ‘bloodbath’ for the Sinistra arcobaleno (Rainbow Left).

This is the outcome of almost two years of ‘centre-left’ government under Romano Prodi in which wages have fallen to amongst the lowest in Europe, ‘precarious working’ has become even more widespread, pensions and public services have been attacked, and the prices of basic goods have rocketed. Now, with an economic recession looming and more vicious attacks about to be launched, working-class people in Italy are without mass political representation. For the first time since the second world war, there are no ‘communist’ or ’socialist’ MPs or senators. They went from 150 to zero!

During the election campaign Walter Veltroni, leader of the Democratic Party (Pd), tried to distance himself from the failures of the Prodi coalition government (in which the Pd was the main party) and convince voters that a vote for him would be a vote for something ‘new’ but he failed to close the gap between the Pd and Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (Pdl). Berlusconi joked that the Pd had stolen so many of his policies that he was considering standing Veltroni at the head of the Pdl electoral list! At one stage a hung parliament in the Senate and a Pdl/Pd ‘grand coalition’ seemed a possible outcome but in the end Berlusconi’s coalition won by a 9% margin, with a clear majority of 100 seats in the lower house and 30 in the Senate.

The biggest gain, however, was made by Berlusconi’s coalition partner the Lega Nord, a right-wing populist, anti-immigrant party based predominantly in the North of Italy where it was the main beneficiary of a protest vote against the political establishment. Overall the Lega’s vote nearly doubled to just over 8%, its highest since its peak in 1996 when it obtained 10%. In Lombardy it won 21.3% of the vote for the Senate and 26.1% in the Veneto region, just two points behind the Pdl. It also picked up protest votes outside of its northern heartland, winning 7.1% in Emilia Romagna, a traditional ‘left’ area, double the vote of the Sinistra arcobaleno. There is no doubt that many of the Lega’s votes came from workers who in the past would have voted for the left but no longer see a party which fights for their interests. In Turin, for example, the party more than doubled its vote to 6.5%. “We are now the workers’ party” declared Umberto Bossi, leader of the Lega.

Bossi has said that his party will not hold the Pdl ‘hostage’ but it will undoubtedly have a significant influence inside the coalition. The Lega will be pushing for more regional financial autonomy, which would benefit the richer North at the expense of the impoverished South as well as for harsher anti-immigrant policies and protectionist economic policies. Already differences have emerged between the Pdl and the Lega, with Berlusconi saying he is prepared to work together with the Pd over certain reforms, while Bossi has called for the coalition to go it alone. These divisions are likely to widen, especially under the impact of an economic recession and industrial and social struggles.

Paying the price of betrayal

The four parties which made up the Sinistra arcobaleno – the Prc (Party of Communist Refoundation), Pdci (Party of Italian Communists), Sd (Democratic left) and Greens – paid a high price for their participation in a capitalist government and failure to defend the interests of workers and youth. The Sinistra arcobaleno won just over 3% – a disastrous vote which is less than the Prc received on its own in the last election in 2006. Altogether these parties lost nearly 75% of their previous vote – a total of 3 million!

It is estimated that 40% of these will have gone to the Pd as people were persuaded to cast what the two main parties dubbed a ‘useful vote’ to try and prevent a victory for Berlusconi. Others will have voted for the two small anti-capitalist parties – the Communist Workers’ Party (Pcl) and Sinistra Critica (Critical Left) – which between them received around 1% – and some 2% are estimated to have gone to the Lega Nord.

Many others, however, simply stayed at home and didn’t bother to vote at all. The fall in turnout (3.5%) was the biggest since the Second World War in a country where participation in elections is usually very high. The fall was greatest in the so-called ‘red’ areas such as Liguria (5.4%) and Emilia Romagna, reflecting the high level of anger, frustration and demoralisation amongst many workers who feel completely betrayed by the parties of the ‘left’.

Having instigated and pursued a disastrous policy of collaboration with Prodi and the Pd, Fausto Bertinotti has resigned as ‘leader’ of the Sinistra arcobaleno. But he has learnt nothing from this experience. He has not renounced participation in capitalist governments and on election night declared that the main mistake was to launch the Sinistra arcobaleno "too late". He, and the people around him, are still determined to push ahead with a ‘united’ party. But unity with who? The Pdci didn’t even bother to turn up to the election night press conference and is clearly preparing to ’go it alone’. The election catastrophe will burst open the fault lines which already exist within and between the Sd, Greens and Prc.

This result is a severe warning for all attempts to form new workers’ parties. Unless such a party remains independent, stays out of coalition with capitalist parties and fights on genuine socialist alternative policies, it can rapidly lose its base and disintegrate, or even disappear into capitalist formations.

Crisis and instability

Italy has had 62 governments in 63 years and Berlusconi is the only Prime Minister who has served a full five year term. Undoubtedly, this will have influenced some people who voted for him hoping for a ’stable’ government. Berlusconi has himself declared that he will govern for five more years. However, despite his clear majority this is likely to be a government of crisis and could fall ahead of time. The Italian economy is in dire straits even before the fallout from the recession in the USA has hit Europe. The Financial Times recently printed an economic ‘weather map’ of growth in Europe, based on forecasts from the IMF. In Italy it was pouring down with rain, with projected growth of just 0.3% this year, the lowest in Europe. According to the OECD, wages are lower than in Greece and productivity is on a par with Mexico!

Even Berlusconi has had to acknowledge the problems that Italian capitalism faces declaring that "the economic crisis will mean sacrifices" and that his government will have to do "unpopular things". Of course, it will be the working class who will be expected to make the most sacrifices with cuts in public spending, more privatisation and increased ‘productivity’. Representatives of big business are already pressing for fast and deep ‘reforms’. They were disappointed by the last Berlusconi government, which to their minds spent most of its time passing laws to protect Berlusconi’s own business interests and stop him going to jail rather than defending the wider interests of Italian capitalism. This time, wrote the business paper ‘Il Sole di 24 Ore’, Berlusconi must have a "sense of responsibility". With a majority in both houses of parliament he has no excuse.

The ruling class fear, however, that with no representation in Parliament, working-class opposition and frustration will explode in the ‘piazzas’ as it did under the last two Berlusconi governments, with general strikes and millions demonstrating against his economic and foreign policy. Even if initially the election of Berlusconi is likely to reinforce the mood of concern and uncertainty which exists amongst many workers and youth, this can quickly give way to explosive movements. Sarkozy swept to victory in France as a “strong”, determined leader who would turn the country around. Within months workers were moving into opposition and his standing in opinion polls plummeted. This shows how quickly the mood can change.

If the leaders of the three main trade union federations in Italy continue with their policy of ‘concertazione’ (talking to the government and holding back struggles) they could be bypassed by angry workers taking spontaneous and unofficial action. Movements could also erupt around social issues such as nuclear energy, sending more troops to Afghanistan or attacks on reproductive rights.

Rebuilding the left

It will be from these kinds of movements, many of which will involve workers and young people completely new to struggle, that the left will be rebuilt in Italy. Many of those would be open to a movement for a new anti-capitalist workers’ party to fight against Berlusconi’s attacks and for a radical transformation of society.

There are still thousands of activists inside the Prc and the other constituent parts of the Sinistra arcobaleno who oppose their parties being dissolved inside what is clearly a failed political project. Some will have no stomach for a fight after such a crushing electoral defeat but others will be prepared to battle for a genuine workers’ party. There are also many other workers and youth in existing movements who could be involved in the struggle for a new party.

The call to create such a party would need to have a broader appeal than the ‘vanguard’ party which the Communist Workers’ Party are calling for – which means basically everyone joining them and accepting their programme and structures. It should be based more explicitly on the working class, aiming for genuine socialist ideas, rather than the vague ‘anti-capitalist constituent’ which Sinistra Critica are promoting.

The building of a new workers’ party will not be an easy or straightforward process after the recent experiences of industrial and political retreat and defeat. But it is a vital one that needs to be begun now by all those who realise its importance and are prepared to fight for it. Cwi members in Italy will be actively involved in that process, in the struggles against Berlusconi and in fighting for a revolutionary socialist programme.

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April 2008