The polls had predicted it. But the proportions of what is now rightly defined as a proper routing of the Italian Left could not even remotely have been anticipated in advance. What was known was that these elections would have marked a watershed. The bipolar reconfiguration of political parties had been taken as a guarantee of government stability and certainty against the variable geometries of Italian politics, as was the anticipated innovation of this electoral round. The victory of Silvio Berlusconi, the 71-year old tycoon-turned-politician of the right-wing coalition, was largely expected. The two catastrophic years of Prodi’s government, after all, could not but be the prelude to the return of the Cavaliere, even though few could imagine his success would have been so clear-cut.
But let us touch upon all the aspects that have shaped the contours of this Waterloo. Any serious attempt must necessarily start by at least spending a few words on the heavy heritage bequeathed by the last government. A marriage of convenience rather than of persuasion, the coalition that brought Prodi to power in 2006 could not stretch any larger on the political spectrum. A precise program, signed and agreed beforehand by all parties, was said to be the best insurance against any surprise. Nevertheless, plagued by a tiny majority in the Senate, Prodi’s government was predicted by many to be destined for a short life. The centre-left included political cultures at odds with each other, and the Prime Minister’s eroded position could do little to keep all his constituencies under control.
The executive swiftly began leaning towards the centre. Starting with a polemic and little thoughtful pardon that released prisoners of all kinds in a single stroke, leading to a rapid worsening of public order indicators, it was clear that the government felt more inclined to please its Catholic and liberal oriented parts. Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation), the most radical Parliamentary force, had been hamstrung by the award of the prestigious, yet relatively powerless, presidency of the Chamber of Deputies to its historic leader, Fausto Bertinotti. Rifondazione felt thereby impeded to defect from the majority even when faced with an outright betrayal of the pre-electoral agreement. The promised civil unions for homosexuals were firstly watered down and then loudly forgotten, labour market flexibility was left untouched, and no Parliamentary inquiry was launched on the events which took place in Genoa during the 2001 G-8 summit. In general, the executive seemed to be in a constant state of impasse, dictated by the need to ensure its mere survival, and incapable or unwilling to give clear answers to the erosion of workers’ purchasing power, to a mounting state of insecurity, and to the deaths of hundreds of workers in unsafe factories.
Meanwhile, the centre-left was undergoing an internal transformation. The fusion of the two major parties of the coalition, the ex-Communist Leftist Democrats and the slightly left-of-centre ex Christian Democrats had been under way for some years. The moment for the launch of the new Democratic Party (PD) had come under the leadership of Rome’s now ex Major Walter Veltroni. PD has allegedly come into being as the real novelty of the political scenario, the ‘house of all reformist forces’, the construction of a ‘modern and responsible democratic party’. In reality, it has represented the attempt to dilute all leftist anchoring, a simplistic move to get of rid of the past, a moderation masked as responsibility, but most importantly the Americanisation of Italian politics. It is the Marcusian tendency of Western political forces to tend towards the centre, worsened by the weak and fearful stance adopted towards the Vatican and civil issues.
The fall of the government came in January, when the sly leader of a small centrist party, famous for its political patronage in a small area of Southern Italy, decided to withdraw his support from the government, following the arrest of his wife, a renowned local politician. The deed was done, new elections were called. The results have been categorical. The 9% difference between the two coalitions is abysmal. But what strikes the most is the great success of the xenophobic Northen League, the once secessionist party of the North, now allied with Berlusconi, which gains a national 8%, with peaks of 30% in some areas of Lombardy. The right-wing coalition has managed to channel all the accumulated discontent into a governmental proposal that has been able to capture the attention of the people, delivering messages that lie at the very heart of the material interests of the population.
Berlusconi and his Northern ally in particular have targeted, in a populist fashion, questions that nag the everyday life of millions, creating a sense of identity and affiliation. Security, excessive taxation, federalism and so on speak of the needs that are felt by Italians, if in a somewhat induced way. Here, the contribution of the media is crucial, and more than 20 years of private TV and sensationalist information have put Italy in line with the rest of the Western world. Once the land of a thriving leftist intelligentsia, now a nation proud of producing show-girls and little more, Italy has undergone a cultural transformation that leaves little room for sophisticated reasoning. A work for sociologists. But Berlusconi and the Northern League have intercepted the votes of those who prefer concreteness to the anxieties of society, rather than ill-defined ‘reforms’ and Europeanist exasperations with public debt servicing.
However, the most worrying result of these elections is the first post-war exclusion of the Communists from any Parliamentary representation. The 4% limit imposed by the Italian electoral law leaves the Rainbow coalition, the electoral cartel comprising Rifondazione and other three minor parties, stuck at 3,1%, and hence out of Parliament. In 2006 the sum of their votes amounted to more than 11%. Wrongly attributed by some commentators to the inevitable failure of anti-enterprise ideas, the roots of this steep decline are to be found elsewhere. Veltroni had excluded an alliance with the far Left, trying to capitalise his search for coherence, but also by resorting to the cheap rhetoric of the ‘useful vote’, as opposed to the ‘useless’ one.
For the second time, Rifondazione was running by itself on the left, caught in the eternal dilemma of all Western radical forces: stubborn and limpid opposition to any executive, or marginal influence from the Left in coalition governments? In these two years, Rifondazione has been able to lose votes from all sides: its historical base, fed up with the its support for the unpopular government of Prodi, and from those who tend to choose the lesser evil. But it has also lost a great deal of following thanks to the gradual detachment of its leadership from the real world, that has preferred TV studios and the nice Roman parlours to conduct its mundane radical chic line. Losing sight of the fact that institutional representation is only a means to further radical claims, and not an end in itself, has cost them dear. So has the fractioning of the party, and the ensuing emergence of two smaller formations further on the Left which have eaten away a vital 1%. The distancing and expulsion of the most intransigent sectors within the party does not seem to have been a good option.
But this defeat might be healthy in the long run. If on the one hand, the now extra-parliamentary Left will have more difficulties in conveying its ideas because of the lack of those big channels afforded by institutional presence, on the other hand a critical process of reconstitution can begin. It is important to acknowledge that institutional representation is nothing but a manifestation of more profound processes of struggle that take place in the heart of society, at the work place, in the universities, among the immigrants, the poorest, and the most disenfranchised of society. The recognition that the Rainbow cartel has been a clumsy electoral improvisation from above is the first step, but this should not prevent the emergence of some coordinated action within the Left. In the wake of this setback, we will hopefully see the emergence of a better prepared leadership, capable of relating more closely to the needs of those it seeks to defend.
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This post was written by Samuele Mazzolini