Italian elections - A hung parliament will prepare new explosions

How do we explain the fact that Berlusconi made such a surprising comeback in the recent Italian elections? He waged a rabidly reactionary election campaign, attacking “Communists” everywhere, defending the better-off layers of society. Prodi’s coalition offered the workers only more “sacrifices”, dampening enthusiam for the Centre-Left coalition. Now a new period of instability opens up in crisis ridden Italy.

The Italian election results came as a surprise for a lot of people in Italy. After a night in which the two coalitions were running neck and neck, the final results came out confirming that Prodi’s “Unione” (the centre-left coalition) had won, but only by a very small margin.

In one of the two chambers, the Senate [or the Upper House], Berlusconi’s coalition actually received more votes, but thanks to the electoral system Prodi can rely on a narrow majority of just two Members of Parliament. In the other chamber, (or the Lower House) “la Camera”, the centre-left coalition won by just 25,000 votes (out of 34 million votes cast!). In the past this would have meant an extremely weak position for the government in Parliament, but thanks to a reform of the electoral law pushed through by the Berlusconi government, the centre-Left “Unione” will receive a “majority bonus” of about 70 MPs.

What is clear from these results is that Italy is a deeply divided country and has entered a period of great instability. This was already clear before the elections. The results have merely confirmed this fact in a striking manner. The question one has to ask oneself is this: how was it be possible for Berlusconi to scrape back so much electoral support after five years of attacks on the working class and all the blatantly pro-capitalist policies that his government has carried out? In these five years we had huge mobilisations of the working class that had pushed the government into a corner. In every election, at local, regional or European level, the right wing had experienced big defeats, one after the other.

There were several factors contributing to this scenario. Firstly, in the last few months, since January, a mood of “wait and see” emerged within the wider ranks of the labour movement and also among the leaders of the left as well as the activists. Many of the leaders of the left felt they had victory safely in their pockets.

After the struggle in Val Susa against the high speed train line and the metal workers’ mobilisation around the renewal of their labour contract, no further mobilisations were called by the leaders of the working class organisations, both trade union and political. The previous electoral defeats of the right wing were all preceded by important struggles of the working class, thus heightening class awareness of the real issues involved.

The comeback of Berlusconi flowed directly from the position adopted by the leaders of the “Unione” in the months running up to the election. Week after week Prodi and the other leaders of the centre-Left bent over backwards to water down any significant reforms in their programme and did their best to show the bosses that they could be trusted if they got into government.

Thus they announced that they would not undo any of the laws that have imposed a casualisation of the labour force, there would be no reversal of any of the privatisations so far carried out, and no improvement in the social services destroyed by five years of the Berlusconi government. Prodi made it absolutely clear to everyone that his first priority in bringing Italy out of the economic crisis it finds itself in would be to “reduce the cost of labour”. He is clearly following the advice of such friends as the British “Economist” magazine which has stated that wages in Italy must be cut by 30! This would be an intolerable burden for the Italian workers, as their wages are already the lowest in the EU after Portugal and Greece (excluding the new members from the former Eastern European bloc)!

We must not forget who Prodi is. This is no man of the left. His roots go back to the old defunct and corrupt Christian Democracy. He has a history as an advisor to governments on how to privatise state assets, and he has also been in office before. The first time he came into office there were greater illusions among the workers that he might do something to stop the privatisations and attacks on wages and welfare. But of course he didn’t. Prodi is the bourgeois leader of a coalition of small bourgeois parties and the parties of the working class (DS, PRC and so on). It is a class collaborationist coalition, aimed at using the leaders of the left, in alliance with the unions, to implement the policies of the bosses. We also have to remember that Prodi was the chairman of the EU Commission until 2004, at a time when liberalisation of the welfare state was being pushed through in all European countries and he is one of the architects of the infamous EU Bolkestein directive.

As we stated, the Centre-Left had won many electoral battles in the recent period. The main reason for these successes were to be found in Berlusconi’s anti-working class policies which provoked a deep hatred towards him and his government among wide layers of the masses.

The situation however changed when Berlusconi started putting forward an aggressive tactic, trying to rally his electoral base and large sections of the middle class around him. He launched a class-based ideological battle, while the centre-left simply harped on about “national harmony”. Berlusconi made no qualms about who his enemy was. His battle was against “Communism”, against those who want to “fleece” the Italian people by making them pay an enormous amount of taxes. While the leaders of the centre-left were talking about “sacrifices”, Berlusconi promised tax cuts. At one point he issued a very clear class appeal aimed at the worst prejudices of the middle classes: “I don’t wish that the sons of the middle class have the same opportunities as the sons of the working class.” In a situation where everyone is feeling the effects of the economic crisis he basically told the middle classes: if you vote for me I’ll make sure you don’t pay; we’ll get the working class to pay!

Instead of understanding this basic class question, many left-wing intellectuals wrote reams and reams about the power of Berlusconi’s televisions, a power “which no one can defeat”. That Berlusconi is extremely powerful is obviously a fact, but it is not true that he is invincible. He has been beaten before by the mass movement. And in spite of all his media he did lose these elections. But his strength lies in the weaknesses of the centre-left, not in any media empire.

The way Berlusconi made a comeback in these elections shows that in modern times you do not win elections with a “moderate” programme. What you need is a militant class-based position. You have to defend class interests. Berlusconi did that; the centre-left didn’t.

The problem was that because of the heterogeneous class nature of the “Unione” a class appeal was impossible. That is why Berlusconi was able to partially recover his flagging support. What is clear from a closer analysis of the voting patterns in the different regions of Italy is the following. In the traditional strongholds of the right wing, a percentage of 3 to 4% of those people who normally abstain turned out to vote. This means they were motivated. They felt they had something at stake. Unfortunately, this did not materialise in the traditional strongholds of the left. The “Unione” failed to get its passive supporters to turn out. This indicates that they had no confidence that a Centre-Left government would do anything concrete for them.

The results of the various parties that made up the “Unione” indicate that those parties with a more radical left image did better. Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) got 7.5% for the Senate and 5.8% in the “Camera”, with a 350,000-vote increase compared to the 2004 European election results. The total sum of the votes of the PRC, the PDCI (the Party of the Italian Communists) and the Greens was more than the votes received by the “Margherita” (the main bourgeois party in the “Unione”).

The PRC will now have the largest parliamentary group it has ever had since it was founded in 1991, with 68 MPs. This will put enormous pressures on the leadership, in a hung parliament were every vote will count. Bertinotti, the leader of the PRC, is now tying his cart more and more tightly to the Centre-Left. Throughout the whole election campaign, the PRC hardly differentiated itself from the rest of the coalition. The main slogan of the party was: we want the programme of the “Unione” to be carried out.

At the same time, huge pressure will be brought to bear on the new government to act in accordance with the needs of the ruling class, i.e. to attack the living standards of the working class. The bosses have faced a dilemma for some time in Italy: there is no party which they feel is fully theirs. Berlusconi only represents the interests of one layer of the bourgeoisie. The bosses have been desperately seeking to build such a party, a party that can firmly implement their strategy and programme.

The bourgeois press has been campaigning for the creation of a US-style Democratic Party for some time. They would like the Democratic Left (formerly the PDS, the main party that issued from the split in the old Communist Party back in 1991) to fuse with the Margherita, thus transforming the main party of the Italian working class into a bourgeois party. This is an ongoing process, the outcome of which is not at all guaranteed. However, the “good result” of the joint list in these elections, at least in the Lower Chamber, means that there will be increased pressure on the leaders of the DS to go down this road. The joint DS-Margherita list (under the name of “l’Ulivo”) got 31.5% in the Lower House, while for the Senate the two parties stood separately and only received around 27%. This will now be used to argue that together they are stronger.

The bourgeoisie desperately needs reliable parties of its own because the Prodi government will prove to be a government of crisis. The German-style Grand Coalition is not an option in Italy. Although Berlusconi has raised it, in reality neither he nor Prodi really believe that it is feasible. It would provoke other contradictions, it would require new leaders and so on.

In the short term the election of this new government will create a mood of wait-and-see within the labour movement. Although this Centre-Left is not as credible as it was in the past, many workers will want to give it a chance, to see what it will do. They do not want Berlusconi back and therefore we can expect a temporary calm as workers would want to avoid provoking an immediate crisis of the Prodi government. However, this situation cannot last for long as the government will have no real room for manoeuvre. Given the severe crisis of Italian capitalism, new attacks and cuts are inevitable.

Berlusconi also is not going to go home. His aggressive stance proved to be successful. His allies would be condemned to political impotence without him. He plays a key role in holding together the Centre-Right alliance. He will now radicalise more and more his speeches. He will use all sorts of racist and reactionary propaganda, believing this will be enough to strengthen his position. But all he will achieve is radicalising the whole situation even further. Therefore this method has its limits and it could provoke an opposite reaction to what he expects. It could prove to be the whip of the counterrevolution that unleashes a revolutionary movement. Radicalisation to the right will provoke an opposite radicalisation to the left.

In the next period, all the political organisations will be put to the test in Italy, and this is particularly true for the workers’parties. After an initial pause, things will move on again. At a certain stage it will become very clear to the workers and youth what Prodi’s real agenda is. Once this happens contradictions will open up within the left parties and within the trade unions. Pressure will mount for the leaders of the Left to resist any further attacks on workers’ living standards. The activists will question the government’s policies and will look for an alternative.

The Marxist tendency gathered around FalceMartello is patiently explaining this to the ranks of the PRC, to the youth and the workers in general. As Prodi reveals his true colours more and more workers will begin asking questions of their leaders. The leaders of the PRC have committed themselves to supporting Prodi. This means they will be under pressure to support anti-working class policies. On this basis the revolutionary alternative presented by the Marxists will appear as the only viable option and the ideas of Marxism will gain the ear of the ranks of the party.

See also:

Join us

If you want more information about joining the RCI, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.