Neither Prodi nor Berlusconi - for independent working class politics

Weekly Worker 620 Thursday April 13 2006

Eddie Ford comments on the Italian elections

After much toing and froing, Romano Prodi’s Union coalition (l’Unione) has been declared the winner of Italy’s general election. With over 83% of the registered electorate casting a vote, the Union secured a wafer-thin majority of just 49.81% to 49.74% in the lower house, the 630-member chamber of deputies (camera dei deputati). And it managed to win a slim two-seat majority in the upper house - the senate of the republic (senato della repubblica) - which has 315 elected members, plus some life senators.

But, quite understandably, Silvio Berlusconi - incumbent prime minister and head of the House of Freedoms (Casa delle Libertà) coalition - refused to admit defeat, disputing the result. Berlusconi knows that once he ceases to be prime minister his privileged immunity is lost and that means the certainty of prosecution on charges of corruption.

Given the closeness of the result, it seems likely that another general election will be being held within a year or so. Many in Italy, and elsewhere, are describing this as a “Florida election” - that is, an election which has acted to expose, and further intensify, a country’s social-political and cultural fault lines.

Hence the Il Riformista newspaper, amongst others, declared - “Italy is split”. Berlusconi himself - with his characteristic histrionics - blurted out the term “civil war” to describe the situation Italy now finds itself in.

As for financial and business representatives - and the bourgeoisie as a whole - they have made clear their displeasure with the “instability” engendered by the elections. They want the discipline of firm capitalist government with a programme to crack down on the workers - whether it comes from the Union, the House of Freedoms or a German-style ‘grand coalition’ of the two blocs, as noisily suggested by Berlusconi. Prodi, however, has issued a statement “absolutely” rejecting the idea of a grand coalition - claiming he has a clear mandate.

The extraordinary knifes-edge nature of the election could make it harder for the elites to conduct business as usual - the stakes are much higher, the electoral ground much shakier. For instance, the Union’s winning margin in the chamber of deputies amounted to a mere 28,000 votes (or 0.01%) - a minuscule fraction of Italy’s 47 million eligible electors, with Berlusconi quickly announcing that he wants 43,028 of those ballot papers officially declared as spoilt or annulled to be “reviewed”. Furthermore, there was an overall total of nearly half a million ‘void’ votes - giving us fractions of fractions.

Then, in the senate, the House of Freedoms actually won the popular vote of those living in Italy - by 50.21% to 48.96% (or 155 seats to 154). However, for the first time in Italian history, citizens living abroad had the right to vote in the general election - for 12 deputies and 6 senators.  Forty-two percent of these ‘non-resident’ voters voted, with the Union getting four of the six senate seats available, while Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and an independent candidate each gained one of the remaining two seats (ending up with 158 seats to 156). In this way, Prodi managed to scrape a majority in the senate too.

Damning Prodi for his “irresponsibility” in proclaiming himself victor, Berlusconi has piously ventured the opinion that there were “many irregularities” in the voting. Indeed, according to him, “we believe that there is no one who can say today, as things stand, that he is the winner” as the figures showed “many, many, many murky aspects”.

This is of course stunning hypocrisy from Berlusconi, as well as being splendidly ironic. At the end of last year, he and allies pushed through changes to the electoral system/law, in a naked bid to effectively gerrymander the 2006 elections - after his own soundings indicated that he was in danger of losing. Between 1994-2001, Italy had a mixed electoral system, with 75% of the seats assigned through a first-past-the-post system (FPTP), and 25% through a proportional one (PR). Then, miraculously - seeing how up to then Berlusconi had described FPTP as his “religion” - a white paper for a PR-only electoral system was presented to the chamber of deputies on September 13 2005, with the prime minister’s imprimatur all over it.

But, of course, Berlusconi’s ‘special’ version of PR was aimed purely at putting as many technical-bureaucratic obstacles as possible in the way of Prodi’s ‘centre-left’ coalition. It contained three different hurdles that must be overcome to enter parliament - a 10% percent hurdle for coalitions, 4% for individual parties and 2% for the smaller parties that belonged to a coalition. Obviously, Berlusconi was hoping that the new electoral system would pose an insurmountable barrier to several of the small organisations inside the Union.

More monstrously still, despite the general election being supposedly held on a proportional basis, the seats are not allocated according to the share of the votes a party or coalition actually receives.

In other words, we have an unproportional ‘proportional representative’ voting system. Thus, thanks to Berlusconi, the most successful coalition is automatically entitled to 340 seats in the 630-seat parliament, no matter how small the margin of victory in the popular vote - with the runners-up getting some 277 seats.

But, quite wonderfully in some respects, Berlusconi’s endeavours to fix the general election seem to have backfired on him - with Prodi instead becoming the grateful beneficiary of an artificial majority in the chamber of deputies (eventually bagging 341 seats to 277). Here is the reality of his ‘mandate’.

The actual election campaign itself was characterised by increasingly crazed, desperate and inflammatory comments from Berlusconi and his far rightist coalition partners. So, the ever charming Alessandra Mussolini - granddaughter of Benito and leader of Social Alternative (Alternativa Sociale) - came out with the ditty, “Better fascist than queer”. Similarly, in a base bid to whip up bigotry, Umberto Bossi - insufferable boss of the ultra-nationalist and separatist Northern League - said that those from the Union “smell of Vaseline”, a derogatory reference to the fact the coalition fielded a relatively large number of gay and transvestite candidates.

Then there was the silver-tongue of Berlusconi - no mean hand at insults himself. Apart from regularly - and perhaps unwisely given his catholic constituency - comparing himself to Jesus and Napoleon, Berlusconi came out with a series of pro-Mussolini remarks.

Thus, on one occasion he offered the viewpoint that Benito Mussolini “had been the greatest statesman in Italian history” - and followed this up with the observation Mussolini’s fascist regime “hadn’t killed a single person”, it “just used to send opponents on holiday”.

Significantly, Berlusconi resorted to just about the most crude and primitive anti-communism imaginable in his attempt to remain prime minister. Hence, he tried to frighten - or maybe entertain - voters with the idea that by voting for Prodi’s coalition they would be “voting for Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot”. More notoriously, and in one of the more surreal moments of the campaign, last month he told an election rally in Naples that under Mao the “Chinese communists used to boil babies” - as opposed to eating them, of course - so they could “fertilise the fields”. Apparently, this was “an historical fact”. When challenged on the historical veracity of his contention, Berlusconi advised his interrogator to “read the Black book of communism” - where you would “discover” this and other colourful facts about communism (somewhat ironically, China has officially declared 2006 the “Year of Italy”).

What of the Italian left? Frankly, they have hardly covered themselves in glory. Apart from a few utterly obscure and truly marginal left groups (like the Marxist-Leninist Italian Communist Party, which got 0.08% of the vote in the Senate elections), they took shelter in Prodi’s Union coalition - and essentially became loyal junior partners.

For example, the ‘official communist’ Party of Italian Communists (which has 16 seats in the lower house, and 11 in the upper house) has led the call for the 85-year-old president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, to run for a second term when his mandate expires next month - despite the fact that the octogenarian had been widely expected to retire. Echoing the sentiments of the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats, and the Green Party, the national secretary of the PIC, Oliviero Diliberto, said in best traditions of bourgeois statesmanship: “In a country split in two, we want to re-elect Ciampi, in order to guarantee the unity and peace of the nation, as well as its institutional balance” (

Of far more concern though, is the role being played by the “unreconstructed” and “hard-line” communists - as mainstream paper like The Guardian are wont to label them - of Communist Refoundation (Rifondazione Comunista).

Given that it got 5.84% (41 seats) of votes for the chamber of deputies, and 7.37% (27 seats) in the senate, you could reasonably suggest that they swung it for Prodi’s Union. And if Prodi is able to cobble together some form of viable government out of the chaos of this week’s elections, Rifondazione must surely be held accountable for its complicity in the policies and actions of such a government - which you can guarantee will continue the attacks on the working class unleashed by Berlusconi. Self-evidently, Prodi will do his best to use Rifondazione as a tool with which to defuse popular anger, and in general control the working class in the interests of capital. Unless Rifondazione breaks from the Union.

By all current evidence, this seems unlikely - potentially very bad news not simply for communists and working class partisans in Italy, but across Europe. Rifondazione’s last experience of this sort of engagement should have been a salutary one; it was the disastrous two-year period during which they supported the minority Prodi government - the Olive Tree coalition - without actually being part of the coalition (1996-98).

As part of the deal to prop up the administration, its parliamentary faction actually voted for the infamous ‘Neapolitan laws’, which led to the setting up of temporary detention centres and an immigration policy by quota. All sections of the party (including Bertinotti) subsequently criticise themselves for this “massive mistake” and have vowed to overturn the law once they are in government.

We shall see. The precarious nature of the new centre-left’s victory will hardly inspire the centrist Rifondazione to bold acts of defiance. At its March 2005 congress, there was a hint of desperation about the arguments of many delegates who pushed for the party to re-enter a Prodi coalition. “Society demands it of us” was a phrase often heard from these comrades: “How can we seriously turn down the opportunity to defeat this man? People would not forgive us,” said another speaker. Sections of the Olive Tree still accuse Rifondazione of being responsible for Berlusconi’s victory, precipitated when the PRC withdrew support from the coalition. Will the comrades be up for another split, even if it opens the door to Berlusconi?

Rifondazione leader, Fausto Bertinotti, has downplayed this possibility as - apparently - the political context in which this new parliamentary arrangement takes place is completely different. At the party’s March 2005 conference, the pro-coalition majority around Bertinotti recommended participation in extra-parliamentary “social movements” as a positive antidote to the rightism that government participation inevitably brings.

Bertinotti was also keen to show that there will be “huge differences” with the first Prodi experience: “In 1996, there was a massive centre-left influence in the world, with Clinton in power and Europe ruled mainly by social democratic governments. There was a feeling that history was over, capitalism unchallengeable. Italy was a country without much social conflict. Can’t you see how things have changed now? The movements have become a truly democratic political force in society, the unions have moved to the left. There are now more strikes in Italy than there have been for a long time” (Weekly Worker March 10 2005).

In truth, Rifondazione has been drawing back from this amorphous ‘movementism’ - and the European Social Forum - for some time now as the prospect of government became more likely. Not that it would have provided much in the way of a counterweight to inevitable pressures and temptations of governmental office.

Thus, Rifondazione’s relationship to the Prodi coalition suggests that it will actually provide a left cover for attacks on the working class.

For communists there needs to be an independent working class alternative to both bourgeois blocs in order to defend the fundamental democratic rights and living conditions of the working class.

All communists and socialists within Rifondazione opposed to this disastrous course, which at one stage in 2005 amounted to something like a 40% minority, must begin now to organise a disciplined rebellion against the treacherous path that the leadership is taking the organisation down - before it is too late.