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Europe, Italy

The Italian left is being remade

by Tom Gill
 
There has been a festive mood in the air in Italy after voters delivered a real beating to premier Silvio Berlusconi in the second-round local elections.

Tens of thousands filled Milan’s cathedral square sporting orange T-shirts and balloons to celebrate the victory of the left-wing lawyer Guiliano Pisapia as their new mayor.

Crowds were letting rip in the streets and squares of Naples and Cagliari where left candidates had triumphed too.

The media magnate had declared the municipal and mayoral elections, which ended with run-offs in 90 Italian towns and cities, a “national test” of his power.

The message from the voters was a most definite “arrivederci.”

Voters have had no shortage of reasons to reject Berlusconi and his allies.

Scandals linked to relations with an underage prostitute and investigations into tax fraud and an abuse of his official position that are playing out in court. His iron grip over the country’s TV and naked use of it.

His strident attacks on the judiciary and very public debasement of women.

His use of the law to serve his own interests and keep him out of jail.

And an economy that has been virtually stagnant for years, with rising unemployment and poverty.

In the past his personal intervention has managed to turn around his personal misfortunes. But the Midas touch has evidently gone.

Berlusconi’s greatest loss was Milan, the heart of the billionaire’s business empire and political strength.

Incumbent Letizia Moratti, from one of Milan’s most powerful business families, was knocked from her perch as the left took 55 per cent of the vote and ended a 20-year reign by the right.

The campaign was marked instead by a new low level in political discourse, overt racism and unprecedented dirty tricks.

Berlusconi, who decided to have himself listed as the main name on the party list vote for the financial capital, claimed Pisapia would form an “extremist” administration that would turn Milan into a “city of Gypsies,” Islamists and communists.

There were even reports of Romany people being paid to go out into the streets begging and declaring they were supporters of the left-wing lawyer.

Meanwhile, the diatribes continue against “dictatorial” magistrates – aimed both to delegitimise his ongoing trials and his public challenger in Naples, a former public prosecutor.

Earlier in the campaign posters appeared – disowned by mayor Moratti and allies – depicting members of the state prosecution service as terrorists.

The man who deals with every issue, however serious, with a battuta (joke) even declared the opposition as “brainless.”

The premier had also staked a lot of political capital on winning back Naples from the left, whose reputation was in tatters after 18 years of rule marked by poor administration and corruption.

Instead he suffered a humiliating defeat as the opposition took 65 per cent of the vote.

This was thanks in part to the latest in a string of headline-grabbing political gimmicks to save the locals from their rubbish – promises of salvation not kept by Il Cavaliere (The Knight), as the premier has been mockingly dubbed.

Nor did it help that two local members of his party had just been arrested on charges of links to organised crime.

Overall, the run-offs were a disaster for Berlusconi and his allies in the Northern League, which lost control of the north-eastern city stronghold of Novara – and they confirmed the rout in the first round of local elections a fortnight earlier.

The post-Berlusconi debate, which has had many a false start, has begun again in earnest.

Berlusconi himself, with general elections still two years away, is showing no hurry to leave the scene.

But governor of Lombardy Roberto Formigoni said last week that he’d be ready to take over the helm, although only if and when Berlusconi goes for the top job – president of the republic.

Finance and Economy Minister Guilio Tremonti has also been widely tipped as a successor.

Both are members of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party, although Tremonti is also close to the Northern League.

Whether these are realistic scenarios remains to be seen.

A number of commentators are now saying Berlusconi is a spent force and that the xenophobic Northern League, for many years happily hanging onto the premier’s coat-tails, needs to cut loose if it is to survive.

Leader Umberto Bossi has form – he brought Berlusconi’s first government in 1994 down after just seven months.

Unlike Berlusconi’s party, which is glued together by his huge wealth and private TV monopoly, the Northern League, with around 8 per cent of the vote, has a genuine mass bass.

It will be much more likely to survive opposition.

Also a worry for Berlusconi are the ambitions among a former ally, the “post-fascist” Gianfranco Fini, and others in the so-called “third pole” consisting of former Christian Democrats, to supplant Berlusconi and his party too.

Things obviously look different from the perspective of the centre-left opposition – or, better put, oppositions.

The main beneficiaries of these elections have been the Democrats, who made big gains in these local elections.

In Turin, birthplace of Italian communism and historically the heart of the industrial working class, voters gave Democrat Piero Fassino the thumbs up.

Coming shortly after Fassino took sides with Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne in a showdown with the unions over steps to slash terms and conditions, this was claimed by some as a vote of confidence with the “modernising” right wing of the party.

In Bologna, also a traditional stronghold of the left, the Democrats’ preferred choice came out on top too, although there was also a strong showing (10 per cent) from the Five Star Movement of anti-Berlusconi blogger Beppe Grillo.

But in the game-changing mayoral run-offs it was not the Democrats, the largest party on the left, but more radical parties and candidates that won the day.

In Milan, 62-year-old Pisapia was until recently a card-carrying member of Communist Refoundation, representing it in parliament for two terms ending in 2006.

In Cagliari, victor 35-year-old Massimo Zedda was, like Pisapia, backed by the radical Left Ecology Freedom (SEL) party led by Puglia governor Nichi Vendola – a former member of Communist Refoundation.

The son of a historic Sardinian leader of the Italian Communist Party, Zedda fought an impressive campaign against the right and its backers in the powerful “cement” lobby that has privatised and ruined large parts of the island with uncontrolled development.

In Naples, the biggest city in the south, 42-year-old Luigi de Magistris was another newcomer, taking his first position in politics as an MEP in 2009.

From a distinguished and fearless family of anti-corruption prosecutors, de Magistris learned about politics via his investigations into links between the local mob and politicians.

In his bid for mayor, he was backed by his Italy of Values party (IDV), which is lead by Cleans Hands judge Antonio di Pietro, and the Left Federation (comprising Italy’s two communist parties).

Common to these three local contests was the fact that the victors had to go through bruising battles against the dominant – and most right-wing – party of the centre left, the Democrats, either through internal centre left primaries or at the ballot box.

A second common thread was the fact that they were all “new faces.”

This is significant in a political system that endlessly recycles politicians.

Futhermore, after years of being on the back foot by the salesman Berlusconi, they showed that the left can produce leaders with something to say and an ability to communicate.

They also made good use of new means of communication and organisation such as Facebook and Twitter to circumvent and compensate for Berlusconi’s hold over the media – a grip only equalled by the likes of Berlusconi’s friend Muammar Gadaffi and other Arab dictators.

Furthermore, their campaigns involved a real mobilisation of people from or close to newer smaller parties or who were new to “party” politics.

And many of these new activists were young.

Against a long-term disengagement and disenchantment with politics, symbolised by the disappearance of the two mass parties of the post-war period – Christian Democrat and the Italian Communist Party – and declining party membership, this is something to be welcomed.

This upswing in political engagement didn’t come out of thin air.

Over the past 12 to 18 months there has been a seemingly endless stream of national and – mostly – local strikes and protests involving unions, civil society organisations and men and women from all walks of life, including students, workers, the unemployed and pensioners.

The focus of Italy’s new left mayors now will be to combine honest government with a genuine concern for and interest in their constituents, rather than breeding and feeding prejudice and serving narrow business interests.

This will build confidence in the left’s ability to govern nationally.

More importantly, if promises of a new inclusive approach are kept, there is hope of building on the participation in the elections to create the kind of mass national movement needed to mount a challenge to Berlusconi – and then maintain a progressive government in power.

There is still plenty to be done.

There are clearly ideological divisions within the left and there is also much damaging personal rivalry between overinflated egos.

And the left certainly hasn’t yet articulated a convincing alternative to Italy’s serious social and economic problems, although a referendum later this month to abrogate a law to privatise water may at least help to clarify positions on key issues such as public ownership.

Nor does the left have a clear view on the disastrous austerity-driven politics of the EU which condition so much of the decision-making in Rome.

For decades after the second world war Italy was a crucible for progress and innovation in politics and in culture.

Then, after the fall of the Berlin wall and the dissolution of the Italian Communist Party, it became a laboratory for a new European right where a tradition of corruption merged with new authoritarian, socially regressive and racist ideologies.

Now the wheel may be turning again.

The Italian left is being remade.

Here’s hoping that the peninsula may once again be a place to look to for inspiration.

Link to Morning Star newspaper

About revoltingeurope

Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope

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