Why is Berlusconi back in Italy?

May 13, 2008

Yurii Colombo is a longtime Italian socialist and activist. He answered the questions of Lee Sustar about right-winger Silvio Berlusconi and his party's recent victory in Italian elections.

THE LEFT suffered an unprecedented defeat in the elections just two years after joining liberal Romano Prodi in a coalition government, and now Silvio Berlusconi has taken over as prime minister for a third term. What happened?

THE LEFT began its support of Prodi's government in 2006 with huge ambitions. Fausto Bertinotti, the leader of Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation), said: "With the help of the social movements, we'll shift the center-left coalition to the left."

In two years, the government approved, with the support of the ministers of the left, a tax cut for the bosses of 8 million euros ($12.4 million), a cut in pensions and an increase in the defense budget for the military campaigns in Lebanon and Afghanistan.

There was deep disillusionment among people on the left, and the movements disappeared. But there were movements against the new NATO military post in Vicenza, and the women's and gay movements were in frontal opposition to the government.

In 2007, the ex-Communist party, the Democrats of the Left, unified with the "left" Christian Democrats to launch the Democratic Party (PD), with Prodi as leader.

Silvio Berlusconi was able to take advantage of a historic collapse of the left to win a third term as prime minister in May 2008
Silvio Berlusconi took advantage of a historic collapse of the left to win a third term as prime minister

Bertinotti wanted "fill the vacuum" on the left, and organized a "Rainbow" election coalition that included Greens, Stalinist communists, Rifondazione and a handful of left democrats against the perspectives of Prodi's PD. The idea was to create something similar to the Left Party in Germany. But this was an artificial project without any roots.

When the Rifondazione was born in 1991, it "the heart of the opposition." But in the 2008 campaign, the "Rainbow" was a left without heart.

The collapse of the left in the election has a historical significance. In two years, it lost two-thirds of its voters. For the first time in modern Italian history, the left is completely out of parliament.

HOW HAS the standard of living for workers fared in the last two years?

THERE'S SOMETHING paradoxical in the situation of the Italian working class. In the last few months, on all the political talk shows and during all political debates, politicians, sociologists and economists discussed the tremendous conditions of the working class.

Yet in Italy today, the number killed in "work incidents" exceeds 1,000 workers every year. The bosses' newspaper, Il Sole 24 ORE, declared that the majority of these workers died because they work 10 to 12 hours every day, and because the standard wage isn't enough. But there isn't any serious political organization of the working class in Italy today.

WHAT ROLE did the unions play in advancing Prodi's program?

THE "OFFICIAL" unions supported the cuts in pensions and worsening the contractual condition of young workers.

They made this shameful agreement after a farcical referendum of union members, and declared that the majority of workers supported them. But if you look to real data from industrial zone of the country, the workers voted "No." The union leaders won the vote in the little factories and in the South, where they could manipulate the referendum.

From 1970s and the beginning of the process of deindustrialization, the unions have lost about 3 million members. Today, they have about 5.5 million members. It's a big number, but they are more and more similar to U.S. unions--increasingly interested in selling private pensions to workers and raising productivity in the factories.

RIFONDAZIONE HAS declined in membership after joining Prodi's coalition. What has happened to the social movements that we saw around Rifondazione and the Genoa protests of 2001?

IN THE middle of the 1990s, Rifondazione reached its peak with 150,000 members and 8.3 percent of vote. At the turn of the century, it was very radical, and the left internationally looked to Rifondazione as a model of a "new workers party."

It was an illusion. Rifondazione was a reformist party, and when the movements slowed down, Rifondazione moved quickly to the right. Today, it has about 60,000 disenchanted members, and it received, together with the Greens and other two left parties, 3.2 percent of the vote, as against 10.3 percent in 2006.

BERLUSCONI'S COALITION depends on the hard right--the anti-immigrant Northern League and the ex-fascist party that merged with Berlusconi's own party prior to the elections. Now an ex-fascist has been elected mayor of Rome. What kinds of policies will the right wing pursue?

WE SHOULD not look at the Italian right in an impressionistic way. Yes, the right won the vote of the Northern working class, and it takes advantage of popular fears about crime and immigration. But the bankers, the big industrialists and the national newspapers backed Prodi's Democratic Party, not the right.

The right built a strong coalition between medium-little entrepreneurs, the middle classes and the northern working class. They expelled from the coalition the open fascist tendencies (an openly fascist split from former National Alliance received a modest 2 percent in the election) and became more and more populist.

It's a big mistake to describe the right as a "neoliberal coalition." Berlusconi's coalition is openly protectionist, cries about the defense of the Italian worker against the "Chinese danger," and declares itself "anti-globalist," etc. The minister of the economy, Giulio Tremonti, declared, "The crisis should be paid for not by the poor, but by the bankers and petroleum bosses.

We'll see what this means in the next few months. But today, Berlusconi's "program" is very popular. He has announced a big Keynesian plan of social spending: high-velocity trains, a bridge that will link the island of Sicily to the rest of the country, new superhighways, etc.

Another example: Faced with the bankruptcy of the Italian airline Alitalia, Berlusconi's government loaned the company 300 million euros to save it. He said that if there isn't a serious offer for Alitalia, he'll change it from a company in which the state owns a "golden share" into full state property.

Also, international public opinion was shocked about the triumph of the ex-fascist Gianni Alemanno in the mayoral election in Rome. But he built his campaign very carefully. He presented himself as an ecologist who is against the politics of real estate speculators that supported the center-left, against GMO food.

During a meeting with the Jewish community, he said, "I'm anti-totalitarian--against fascism and communism as well." The most famous leader of Italy's movements of 1968, Mario Capanna, supported Alemanno, as did a very famous left-wing folk singer, Antonello Venditti, the Italian Bruce Springsteen.

So when people fed up with the degeneration of Prodi's center-left coalition looked for an alternative, this re-branded right was able to win. The right presents itself not only as policemen against immigrants, but also as a "green," "democratic" and "popular" coalition.

WHAT IS the perspective of the far left on how to recover from this defeat?

THE TWO Trotskyist election lists received together about 1 percent in the elections--about 350,000 votes. If they presented themselves together, they could be a serious alternative to Rifondazione and the leadership of the Rainbow. But we have to work very hard against the sectarian background of the far left.

It's crucial in the next few months to build not only a necessary united front against the right, but also a political alternative inside the left. The conference of Rifondazione will be held in July. There will be five different motions discussed on the way forward.

We can easily forecast the decomposition--to the right as well to the left--of Rifondazione. But we need the most combative layers of Rifondazione to rebuild the left. We need a authoritative socialist organization--quickly.

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