By Tom Gill
His supporters on the right honoured him. The communists remembered him as their arch-enemy. For most Italians, he symbolised the degeneration of the Italian politics into a corrupt and self-serving system.
Bettino Craxi, who died on 19 January in his self-imposed exile in Tunisia, will not be forgotten. Craxi’s career reached its peak in 1983-1987, when he reigned as the country’s first socialist leader and the longest serving Prime Minister in the post-war period. His rise to the top was rapid ‘ although nowhere near as fast as his fall. He became the party’s leader at 42 years of age, following the PSI’s disastrous election results in 1976.
A protege of former Socialist Party leader Pietro Nenni, Craxi decided that the much bigger Italian Communist Party (PCI) was his main enemy. He out-manoeuvred the left-wing of the PSI, purging the party of marxism, nationalisation policies and eliminated opposition to an alliance with the long-ruling Christian Democrats (DC). This operation would bring him to power less than ten years later.
In 1992 he was set to become prime minister once again, but Italy’s Tangentopoli (bribesville) scandals erupted, decimating the PSI and the DC. In 1994 Craxi fled the country to escape the ‘clean hands’ magistrates who then sentenced him in his absence to 26 years in jail for corruption and bribery.
The socialist leader did usher in a short period of dramatic economic growth, known as the ‘Italian miracle’. He also carried out some progressive changes, including the abolition of religious instruction in schools and nearly all the church’s powers over civic marriage. He pursued an independent foreign policy in the Middle East, occasionally clashing with the US.
However, he accepted the installation of US cruise missiles on Italian soil. In addition, he turned against the unions and abolished the ‘scala mobile’ wage indexation system. And by getting in on the DC system of patronage, public contract kick-backs, illegal party funding and personal enrichment, he eventually destroyed his own party. From over 10 per cent of the vote in the 1980s, the PSI’s successor parties cannot even win 3 per cent of the vote.
Craxi’s legacy is typified by Silvio Berlusconi, who benefited personally from Craxi’s media deregulation to consolidate his monopoly over Italy’s private television sector. Opposition leader and prime minister for a brief spell in 1994, Berlusconi uses his free air time to boost his own party, Forza Italia, and to attack the magistrates pursuing him for elicit practices. Because of his political strength he has blocked legal changes which would end this conflict of interest.
Berlusconi has learnt much from the PSI leader. Presidential and authoritarian in his leadership style, Craxi turned PSI congresses into slick, expensive events, designed for television. He had little time for internal party democracy, encouraging instead the cult of leadership, power and money. Under Craxi’s rule, private interest pervaded the public arena. This has become a permanent feature of national life.
Of course, other ‘modernising’ European social democrat parties have also corrupted society. Francois Mitterrand’s PS, which ruled for most of the 1980s, and Felipe Gonsalez’s PSOE, in power in 1982-1996, are among them. Like New Labour today, they privatised, deregulated and cuddled big business, and in the process sidelined the unions and the party rank-and-file.
© SCGN February 2000 no.151