The new Italian coalition Government has a tough task to reverse the rapacious and reactionary policies of its predecessor, says Tom Gill
“YOU will mourn us”, said Silvio Berlusconi, as he announced the resignation of his Government to the nation earlier this month. But Italians, who voted out the billionaire television magnate-turned politician in one of the most hotly-contested general elections for decades, are unlikely to shed many tears. Once again, they have given the Centre-Left under the leadership of Romano Prodi a chance to do better.
That shouldn’t be difficult.
Berlusconi had promised to perform an economic miracle through a pro-business reform programme. But despite being Italy’s most powerful Prime Minister — with the largest parliamentary majority — since the Second World War, Berlusconi’s dream turned into a nightmare of economic stagnation and rising inflation that impoverished millions Adding insult to injury, he humiliated the country on the world stage with disastrous diplomatic gaffs while the George Bush love-in yielded nothing but body bags from Iraq. And Berlusconi changed the laws of the land at will to protect his personal interests and save himself from the courts.
Whether it was because he lacked Berlusconi’s charisma or refused to promise the impossible, Prodi failed to get an overwhelming endorsement from the voters.
His coalition won by the smallest of margins — a 28,000 vote lead in the lower house of parliament, which translated into 348 seats, compared with 281 for Berlusconi’s bloc. And it has a majority of just two seats in the Senate. The lack of a strong parliamentary majority is all the more worrying for Prodi since Berlusconi is far from a spent political force. His Forza Italia party — created out of his business empire in the early 1990s to launch him into politics as his corrupt political protectors were undone in various scandals remains the country’s largest. And despite the electoral defeat, there is no serious challenger to his leadership of the Right.
The challenge for Prodi will be to deliver where Berlusconi failed and keep his coalition intact. With Communists, greens, socialists, liberals and Centrist Christian Democrats in l’Unione, there is arguably more that divides than unites them.
Prodi has taken some precautions to try to avoid a repeat of his previous spell as Prime Minister, when he was brought down in 1998 by the Communist Refoundation party. Communist Refoundation has joined his new his coalition. It has signed up to a joint programme and, with other Centre-Left parties, voted Prodi in as coalition leader in a special primary election. Fausto Bertinotti, Communist Refoundation’s leader, has been elected speaker of the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, a role that is supposed to put him above party politics.
But Communist Refoundation, which increased its share of the vote and now has a record number of seats in the lower house of parliament, has done well enough to be able to push hard on its demands — notably, a reversal of Berlusconi’s regressive labour market reforms.
This will find strong support among trade unions. What they want is a repeal of the Legge 30 or Biagi law — which introduced a range of contracts to make employment practices more “flexible” and so, it was claimed, boost jobs and growth.
However, official figures show that the new “atypical” employment contracts have not cut unemployment. Instead, they have added to job insecurity. Some 3.3 million people have second-class employment, benefits and pension rights.
Rebalancing the law away from employers and back towards workers will not go down well with the Right of coalition, including Prodi himself, and will meet strong resistance from the opposition and Confindustria, the Italian CBI.
But this is not the only challenge. If declining living standards are to be raised and resources found to allow the Government to deliver on a host of other election promises, including improving the creaking state education system, it is going to have to tackle the economy.
The monetary and fiscal straightjacket of the single currency and the Growth and Stability Pact has locked Italy, still heavily dependent on textiles and other lo-tech goods now produced far cheaper in China and India, into a vicious cycle of low growth and low productivity.
The new Government also needs to restore public confidence in the country’s democratic and legal institutions. After years of vicious public attacks from Berlusconi and Right-wing parliamentarians, the judiciary needs to get back to its crucial work in fighting organised crime and political corruption.
Prodi also needs to throw his weight behind the campaign to repeal the Northern League’s devolution law in a referendum in June. This devolves powers over education and health, and will, it is expected, entrench inequalities between Italy’s rich and poor regions.
Then there is the war in Iraq.
Prodi has said that Italian troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of the year. But in recent weeks 5 Italian troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been killed, bringing the total to 30. In addition, embarrassing figures from the Ministry of Defence on Italy’s mission in Nassiriya over the past 3 years show that just 1 per cent of a total £1 billion supposed aimed at rebuilding Iraq has been spent on tangible improvements for the Iraqis. Instead, significant sums were channelled to dubious ends, newspaper reports claim, or spent on espionage and security in a place that has never been less safe.
The pressure is now on from Communist Refoundation and others for a faster timetable of withdrawal from Iraq. Some are calling for a complete rethink of Italian military involvement overseas, which includes Bosnia and Kosovo.
To keep Berlusconi at bay, the new Government must ensure it maintains and strengthens its roots in civil society. As the traumas of the days and weeks after the election demonstrated, the media tycoon lost none of his ability to fight dirty. Amid predictions of “civil war”, Berlusconi successively declared the result illegitimate, refused to budge from the Prime Minister’s office, demanded a German-style “grand coalition” and then sought to impose his own candidate as Italy’s new President.
He didn’t get his way, but he has set the tone of opposition for the coming legislature. The best move Prodi could make against such a formidable opponent is to hit him where it really hurts: remove the stranglehold he has over half of the country that watches his TV networks. The sooner the Government carries out its manifesto commitment to get a new conflict of interest law on the statute books that forces Berlusconi out of politics or out of the TV business, the better.