By Tom Gill
Despite all his troubles, Italy’s media magnate and premier Silvio Berlusconi pulled off another decisive victory against the opposition in the March local elections. Of the 13 contested regions Berlusconi’s right-wing People of Freedom (PdL) movement won six, a gain of four from the centre-left.
The result came as a surprise to some political pundits as the Democratic Party-led opposition appeared to have plenty in its favour. There had been a string of sex scandals involving Berlusconi, the PdL somehow failed to present its list of candidates on time in Lazio, the region that includes Rome, and the country is amid an economic crisis that saw GDP fall by over 5 per cent in 2009 costing more than 400,000 jobs. Two weeks before the election, one poll had predicted that the left might end up with all of the 11 regions it won in 2005.
The Democratic Party rightly pointed out that it closed the gap with the PdL in total votes, but the gap between the two biggest parties is four percentage points – close to the figure in the 2008 general election.
Overall the left lost four of its 11 governorships and was close to losing another, Apulia, had the right-wing parties there not fallen out. In Campania, the region around Naples, the left’s share of the vote fell from 62 per cent to 43 per cent ending 10 years in charge of the local administration. It also failed to keep hold of Lazio.
So why the rout? Apart from examples like Campania, where it was judged on its local record, the Democratic Party’s key failing was the absence of any real campaign against Berlusconi. Many Italians are deeply worried and angry about the premier’s continuing attacks on the judicial system and changes to legislation designed to protect him from prosecution. They are furious at the continuing conflict of interest between his premiership, his huge wealth and his ownership of large and strategic parts of the Italian economy. The most serious concern of all, however, is Berlusconi’s continued stranglehold over terrestrial TV – the main source of political information.
This is also the other explanation for the left’s defeat. In every election since his entry into politics in 1994 Berlusconi’s virtual monopoly of TV was a significant, if not decisive, factor.
The premier still controls state broadcaster RAI and three of the four main national private TV channels. Not content with the huge inbuilt bias in his favour, Berlusconi ensured there was a media black-out of all political parties. Ironically, it was only Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia satellite TV platform that provided election coverage.
Unsurprisingly, instead of backing the Democratic Party or the smaller, high-profile Italy of Principles movement led by former anti-corruption magistrate Antonio di Pietro, many voters just stayed at home. Only 64 per cent of Italians voted, almost eight points less than five years ago. The right and left suffered from the low turnout.
The most disturbing result of the election was the success of the premier’s ally Umberto Bossi whose racist law-and-order party, the Northern League, won 13 per cent of the vote – up from 8 per cent at the general election – confirming its rise from the margins into a national force in politics. The Northern League now controls two rich and populous northern regions – Veneto and Piedmont. It is also well established in the “red” regions of Emilia Romagna, 14 per cent, and Tuscany, 6 per cent, and in run-off voting on Sunday confirmed its encroachment on traditional left strongholds by taking the Lombardy town of Mantua.
The Northern League’s core support are small and medium-sized businesses which support Bossi’s low-tax agenda and demands for “fiscal federalism” – wealthy northerners paying less for public works and other assistance to poorer southerners. But the Northern League now has strong working-class support through a growing base in trade unions and the high profile it gives to issues such as jobs and housing – for Italians and not immigrants. And unlike Berlusconi’s power, built on his enormous wealth and domination of the small screen, the party’s odious politics are spread by a growing number of young activists known as “green shirts.” The grim truth is that the Northern League is now the only real mass political party in the country. Clearly no fightback can start until the left gets its own army of activists out on the streets making the case against racism and for jobs, social justice and the respect of basic democratic norms.
What does the Northern League’s rise mean for Berlusconi? The press dubbed Bossi “Re Umberto” – after an Italian king – and made much of the problems posed for the premier as he exercises his new-found power. In fact, the Northern League already has significant influence on government policies. And not only on immigration, where policy has become decidedly tougher. Aided by Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, a close political ally, he has secured an amnesty and other measures that forgive and encourage the already massive tax evasion by small and medium-size businesses.
Berlusconi, who is being pursued in the courts over tax evasion, had no problems meeting these demands. But he will likely find Bossi’s renewed calls for cuts to north-south fiscal transfers problematic with elements of his PdL movement with power bases in the south, including those from a nationalist-fascist tradition. Berlusconi still harbours hopes of a French-style, presidential form of government for Italy that will place him as president above all, including the magistrates. For that he will need as much suppport as can muster.