Italy at the crossroads
The election of billionaire Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister of Italy for the third time brings together an extreme right-wing coalition at a time of severe economic problems for the country, even before the global credit crunch hits home. These conditions are certain to create a nationalist-racist, authoritarian regime and, at the same time, deepen the crisis of a decrepit and corrupt Italian parliamentary state.
Berlusconi’s government is made up of his own sinisterly named People of Freedom Party, which last year absorbed Gianfranco Fini’s extreme right National Alliance. Fini himself was once a leader in the fascist MSI movement but now proclaims himself a “post-fascist”. Joining them in government is the separatist, anti-immigrant Northern League, led by Umberto Bossi, which was the big winner in electoral terms. Bossi wants the richer north to abandon the poorer south and for the Italian navy to shell people trying to enter the country by boat. Bossi’s party won 8.7% of the 47% cast for Berlusconi’s coalition. His movement runs neighbourhood patrols aimed at intimidating immigrant communities.
Italy's morale has been battered by the struggle to find a buyer for loss-making airline Alitalia, a rubbish crisis in Naples, a health scare over mozzarella cheese and gloomy economic news. The International Monetary Fund forecasts barely any growth this year for Italy, which has the third highest public debt in the world in absolute terms. The Mafia is said by Confesercenti, an association of small businesses, to control 7% of Italy's annual output, while the Spanish economy last year overtook Italy’s. A former British ambassador to Italy says: “It is no wonder that, during a recent visit to the US, I heard doubt being expressed in more than one quarter as to whether Italy still deserves its place at the G7, the capitalist top table.”
Berlusconi himself is, of course, Italy’s richest man by far and owns most of commercial TV, a massive publishing empire and will dictate to state television when he takes office. In 2001, the Economist magazine conducted a long investigation into his finances and declared him “unfit to govern Italy”. Berlusconi has evaded court action only by using his 2001-2006 government to change the statute of limitations and abolish the charge of false accounting with which he was faced. During this campaign, Berlusconi proposed that all prosecutors and judges should be given sanity tests in a verification of his total disdain for the rule of law.
For the first time since 1946 there are no socialist or former communist representatives in parliament. The only opposition to Berlusconi comes from Walter Veltroni’s Democratic Party, which won 38% of the vote and whose policies are hard to distinguish from those of the actual victors. One would-be voter on Sunday channelled his frustration by tearing up and eating his ballot before being led away from a polling station in the southern town of Sorrento by police. "What future are we preparing for our children? Who should I have voted for? Something has to change," said 41-year-old Ciro D'Esposito.
For some time, the Italian left has focused its efforts solely on trying to win control of parliament in the illusory hope that they could bring about change in this way. Following the dissolution of the once powerful Italian Communist Party in 1991, the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) embarked on a project for the building of a "new left". Their failure once in government to make any headway, most recently within Romano Prodi’s administration, has seemingly ended this particular Italian road to nowhere.
Italy’s 1948 constitution is now under impossible strain. The absence of any left opponents in parliament will add to the endemic resentment towards the Italian state, which will abandon what’s left of its democratic credentials as it seeks to impose Berlusconi’s corporate agenda. The social and political struggle in Italy must now assume an increasingly extra-parliamentary dimension, in which the remaking of the constitution to break the power of the country’s economic and political elites is on the agenda.
AWTW communications editor
16 April 2008