Italy: Berlusconi crisis deepens

“General strike” call on lips of protesters

On 14 December Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, survived a parliamentary no-confidence vote by the skin of his teeth. Amidst allegations of bribing MPs with offers of government posts or paying their mortgages, the man for whom everything has a price, scraped through by a margin of just three votes. But it was a hollow victory.

Berlusconi has gone from presiding over one of the biggest and seemingly most stable majorities in the history of the Italian Republic to a crisis-ridden minority government, desperately scrabbling around for every vote. It is unlikely that the coalition government – comprising his Freedom Party (PDL) and the Northern League – will last three years until the end of its term, and nearly everyone is expecting a general election next year.

The only party clearly calling for elections, however, is the right-wing populist Northern League. It has skilfully managed to be simultaneously part of the government and the opposition, and is the only party which has seen its vote consistently increase in the polls. Despite all the scandals surrounding Berlusconi, the main opposition party – the Democratic Party (PD) – is doing even worse than the PDL. So three days before the no-confidence vote, the PD mobilised tens of thousands of its supporters in the streets of Rome, not to demand new elections but a ‘technical’ (i.e. non-party-political) government!

The current political crisis was triggered when Gianfranco Fini defected from the PDL to form his own party, ’Future and Freedom for Ital y’ (FLI). For some sections of the ruling class, Fini represented a more stable and reliable political representative of their interests than the scandal-prone Berlusconi who has consistently placed his own personal interests first. But Fini is now damaged and weakened after three of his MPs voted with Berlusconi and swung the vote in his favour.

Confindustria, the organisation which represents big business, and the Catholic Church, have recently both openly criticised Berlusconi and the virtual paralysis of his government. But neither of them now wants early elections, fearful that the result could be an even more unstable coalition government. Looming over the ruling class is the European sovereign debt crisis and the threat that the ’contagion’ could spread to Italy – the Eurozone’s third biggest economy – with its enormous public debt of €1,800 billion.

So, in the absence of an alternative, Berlusconi is being pressed to ‘enlarge’ his government to incorporate the Catholic centre-right Union of the Centre (UDC) and then fire ahead with the economic counter-reforms that the capitalist class and the ‘markets’ are demanding. Reluctant to prop up an ailing Berlusconi, however, the UDC has formed a ‘third pole’ with Fini and other smaller parties on the centre right. It is not ruled out that, under pressure from the ruling class, especially if the financial crisis spreads, the third pole could be pushed into supporting the ruling coalition. However, rather than a stable enlarged government, further paralysis and then early elections are the most likely perspective.

As the vote was taking place in parliament, tens of thousands of students, workers and community activists were protesting outside. The Italian working class has not as yet mobilised on the scale of that of France and Greece but there were loud chants of ‘General strike!’, just as there had been on the 100,000 strong demonstration organised by the metal-workers’ union, FIOM, on 16 November. It is significant that, in the current student movement which has been sweeping Italy, the need to link up with workers is more readily grasped than in the student wave two years ago. As in Britain, Greece and France, youth anger has exploded on the streets leading at times to violent confrontations with the police.

Return to the ‘70s?

In Italy, there is now talk of a return to the late 1970s. After many years of mass working class struggle, some workers and youth, feeling betrayed by the large Communist Party and the rest of the traditional Left, turned in desperation to violence and terrorism. This is not yet the situation today but the anger at unemployment, precarious lives and futures being ripped away is real. Without a clear political outlet, this could become increasingly violent, especially in the face of growing police repression.

The current crisis is shaking up the whole political situation in Italy. The collapse of the ‘radical’ left – the Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC) and the Party of Italian Communists (PDCI), now the ’Federation of the Left’ – has been so great that most opinion polls do not even bother to mention their vote, lumping them in with ‘Others’. Populist politicians and even a comedian, with no policies to solve the burning economic and social problems, are temporarily fighting to fill the vacuum on the Left.

On the other hand, the recent struggles with the FIOM to the fore, and others which are clearly brewing, can lay the basis for rebuilding an anti-capitalist political alternative. This would need to be both based on the workers and attractive to radicalised youth and those involved in social movements. The imminent launching of ‘Friends of the FIOM’, for example – pulling together workers, young people and all the forces which came together on 16 November – could be a step in that direction.

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December 2010