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Is it arrivederci for Silvio?

By Tom Gill

Is the game really up for Silvio Berlusconi? Italian MPs will decide tomorrow.

A confidence vote is due in the Italian parliament, following a humiliating and wholly unexpected defeat on Tuesday on an essentially technical vote.

Significantly Guilio Tremonti, Berlusconi’s Finance minister, and Umberto Bossi, the leader of junior coalition partner, the xenophobic Northern League were both absent from the Chamber of Deputies at the time of the vote. The Government was one short of a majority. If the billionaire premier loses this time, he will have to resign.

The Italian Government has been in trouble for some time – most recently with the emergence of a new rebel group that has coalesced inside his People of Freedom (PdL) party around Claudio Scajola, a former minister who resigned last year in an alleged corruption scandal.

It is not clear whether the humiliation in parliament earlier this week was an “accident” as Berlusconi claims, or a conspiracy. Tremonti was apparently absent due to a funeral. But he has been at loggerheads with the PM, whose doesn’t want to take the political responsibility for his finance minister’s insistence on drastic spending cuts and tax increases.

Bossi, meanwhile, was reportedly talking to journalists when the vote was taken. Once the undisputed leader of his party, he is facing open revolt in his party, partly because of his autocratic style and partly because of a belief that his close alliance with Berlusconi is taking them nowhere fast.

Bossi has repeatedly hinted to the possibility of early elections, saying that he thought it “objectively complicated” for the ruling coalition to remain in office until 2013, when the next general elections are scheduled.

The context of the political drama is that “too-big-to-fail” Italy has moved centre stage in Europe’s banking-sovereign debt crisis. This has exposed more than ever the premier’s naked use of the Italian state to serve himself (and save himself from jailors) at the cost everybody and everything else.

A few days ago international rating agencies downgraded the credit worthiness of Italy’s foreign debt, its banks and a number of local authorities.

At root of all of this is the peninsula’s zombie-like economy. The country is overall barely richer (although definitely more unequal) than it was a decade ago, thanks in large part to public spending cuts and an uncompetitive exchange rate locked in by European monetary union. 

The fact that tax evasion is positively encouraged hasn’t helped the public finances either. Berlusconi’s already done two of them since first entering politics in 1994 and now a tax amnesty is on the agenda again, a move that provoked the European Commission to issue an unusually stern warning that this “harms the credibility of Italy’s deficit and debt reduction strategy.”

Measures such as closing tax loopholes, recovering money salted away in tax havens and a clampdown on white collar crime could recover hundreds of billions of euros, enough money to plug the largest budget hole and invest in jobs and public services. But they don’t get a look in.

Berlusconi’s misery has been a boon for the opposition. The latest polls show the widest gap ever between the Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition and the leading opposition party, the Democrats, and their more radical allies, Antonio di Pietro’s Italy of Values party and Nichi Vendola’s Left Ecology Freedom party.

There is now a great opportunity for Italy to turn a new chapter and rebuild the country after Berlusconi and his corrosive effect on politics and public life.

However, the Democrats just want Berlusconi’s head. They are running scared of elections and are instead seeking alliances with almost anybody (including the likes of Scajola) willing to establish a “transition government” to introduce neo-liberal reforms demanded by the European Central Bank and Italian big business.

From a hire-and-fire labour market to the hollowing out and privatisation of public services and the smashing of the protections enjoyed by the liberal professions, the proposed reforms will attack working and middle classes alike.

However, there is a growing rebellion in workplaces and in the streets.

This week Italy’s ‘indignados’ targeted the Bank of Italy, and are promising the permanent protests styled on those that have already swept Spain, North Africa and now the US. Trade unions will be joining them on Saturday for mass demonstrations against austerity.

The Italian political and business class was almost swept away in the Bribesville scandals a decade and a half ago. Berlusconi saved them from it. Fuelled by a climate of complete impunity, today the stench of corruption, is just as strong, financial crime is rife and the thoroughly unhealthy links between politicians and the corporate world more ingrained than ever.

There is a genuine popular rage brewing that will only be further inflamed if the media mogul is pushed aside just so the elite can engineer another stitch up of the Italian people.

So tomorrow’s vote in the Italian parliament is really important. But it is even more important what happens next.

Italy’s migrant workers stand up for their rights

Last weekend one hundred and fifty tomato pickers in the southern Italian region of Puglia walked off the job.  

The workers, African immigrants, had been labouring for 10 hours a day in back breaking conditions for a mere 20 euros (17 pounds) a day.

They were getting paid 3.5 euros a “cassatone”, a 100 kg crate. Out of these takings a cut had to be given to the caporale, a middleman, of 3-5 euros a day, just for luxury of getting picked to do the job, plus another 3 euros to him, for transport to the fields.

And it was all in the black. No social insurance. No contract. No paperwork. No rights.

What’s more many of them had been sleeping rough, outside, as there wasn’t enough tents. There was no hot water. Sanitation was poor. Their situation was positively “prehistoric”, as one local journalist covering the strike puts it.

There is nothing exceptional about this story – it’s not just the labourers, or braccianti of Nardo in the ‘heel’ of Italy, but tens of thousands of legal and illegal immigrants escaping war and poverty in their home countries who work in these conditions every year, picking tomatoes, oranges and other fruit, doing jobs that Italians won’t do.

A 2009 report by the European Network Against Racism found that “90% of migrant workers do not have a labour contract and, 16% have been victims of violence. The living conditions of seasonal workers in Southern Italy are “inhumane”: 65% live in poor housing with no access to water, 62% have no access to toilets and 76% have chronic illness, mostly linked to working conditions.”

It continued: “Workers complained that they were being blackmailed by their employers, that there were delays in payment, that there was no respect for the safety of the workers when using pesticides….

“Seasonal agricultural workers are forced to move from one place to another, living in the countryside where they work with no contact with local services and the local population.

 “Their chances of forming a family or integrating are inexistent; on the contrary, their irregular situation in the labour market exposes them to illegal exploitation and conflicts with the local population. “

Conservative estimates put the number of workers in the hands of illegal gangmasters at 550,000 (800,000 in total are working, without any rights, in the black market). And it is the ndraghetta, the Sicilian Mafia and the Camorra of Naples who are the key players. 

It is impossible that the authorities don’t know about this but there are very few inspections to ensure the law is being upheld and ‘very little interest’ in the matter shown by politicians or institutions, according to the CGIL trade union.   

Now for the first time the people who are treated no better than slaves to satisfy our appetites for pizza and pasta have said enough is enough. And they are standing up for their rights.

Their demands? No more illegal gangmasters – instead regular employment relations with the landowner or via the local employment office. Adherence to the provincial agricultural contract, which requires 5.92 euros an hour and 38.49 euros for a six and a half hour day. And accommodation and sanitary facilities fit for human beings.

It’s a brave stand. One of the leading strikers has received death threats from one gangmaster and his sidekicks. Many without the right papers fear the wrath of the authorities who can impose hefty fines on illegal migrants.  

Fortunately they are not alone. The CGIL and local voluntary groups have been giving the workers practical help – and trying to get the authorities to live up to their responsibilities.

Last month the CGIL published a report, Immigrazione, Sfruttamento, Conflitto Sociale (Immigration, exploitation and social conflict) on the conditions faced by migrant workers in the south and looked at the social, economic make-up of the areas where they work. It concluded that some areas in the South, in Sicily, Campani,Puglia and Calabria, were “powder kegs” just waiting to go off.

The CGIL has been long pressing for tougher legislation – in particular a law has been proposed by an Apulian opposition senator that would make gang-mastering a criminal offence. This must form part of a concerted push against the black economy, backed up by a tough inspection regime, severe penalties and the removal of tax breaks and public financing for offenders, says the CGIL. 

This is the kind of action that left-wing Puglia Governor Nichi Vendola has taken in his region since he was first elected in 2006, legalizing the position of 44,000 workers in agriculture and construction. But he argues he can only do so much and that the problem will not be solved until national action backed by sufficient funding for enforcement is taken.

The strike of the braccianti of Nardo is holding. On Thursday they took their demands to the provincial capital of Lecce. They have secured a commitment from the provincial administrators to discuss their working conditions.

Here’s hoping their stand might start a real fight back against this modern day slavery.   


That conditions the braccianti of Nardo find themselves in is appalling but should not surprise in a country with a government including the Northern League and led by Silvio Berlusconi.

The Northern League’s core supporters are tax-dodging small businesses in Italy’s north who see all state regulation as red tape. Cowed, unorganised illegal immigrants are the source of a good proportion of their profits too.

Since it first emerged in the early 1990s under the leadership of Umberto Bossi the party has addressed the issue of immigration purely in terms of a security problem, and at a national and local level, it has been feeding Italians with a relentless stream of racist propaganda. More recently it has been getting even greater traction by preying on the growing economic insecurity felt among Italians. 

But the Northern League wouldn’t have made such an impact without billionaire Berlusconi.

The media magnate has declared repeated tax amnesties in the three governments he’s led since 1994 and has an ongoing trial for tax fraud. He’s also faced trials in the past on mafia collusion and is thoroughly tolerant of party members and cabinet members who are tainted with allegations of links with organised crime, like Saverio Romano, agriculture minister, who is currently under investigation on mafia-related charges.

As to his attitude to race, the prime minister once commented on President Obama’s “suntan”. He also said: “Reducing the number of immigrants inItalymeans less labour for criminality.” And his monopoly of the TV ensures such views dominate the airwaves. 

The public discourse has been matched by legislation that includes making undocumented entry and stay inItalya crime punishable by a hefty fine.

Furthermore, Human Rights Watch in a report published earlier this year, documented serious law enforcement abuses against Roma, during camp evictions and in the custody of police or Carabinieri, a Defense Ministry force that shares responsibility for civilian policing inItaly.

As HRW points out “political rhetoric, government policies, and media coverage linking immigrants and Roma to crime have fueled an environment of intolerance.”

One Italian anti-racism organization found 398 media reports of hate crimes in 2009, with 186 physical assaults, 18 of which led to death.

Clearly the actual number of incidents must be higher, but official statistics completely underestimate the problem, partly because of the way the crime figures are collected (no disaggregated statistics on crime reports or prosecutions) and partly because victims fear reporting crimes.  

There have been numerous recent examples of mob violence and individual attacks targeting migrants, Roma, and Italians of foreign descent. But the grimmest incident of all was in Rosarno, in the ’toe’ of Italy, a centre of orange picking, largely controlled by the ‘ndragheta, the Calabrian crime syndicate.

In January 2010 African seasonal migrant workers were victims of acts of extreme violence, including drive-by shootings and three days of mob violence which left at least 11 migrants hospitalized with serious injuries. Local residents and law enforcement officers also suffered injuries, some of them caused by migrants during riots against the mob attacks. Workers found to be illegal were transported off to detention centres.

However, in line with the practice of prosecutors and the courts to take a restrictive view of the law on racial hatred (ie it must be the sole motivation), the events in Rosarno did not lead to prosecutions and convictions for racially-motivated crimes. Only three Italians were prosecuted and convicted in connection with the violence.


Italians say No! to Privatisation

By Tom Gill

Water privatisation has been imposed on people across the globe, from Armenia to the UK.

It has been hugely unpopular but people have rarely been asked whether they want their water – a common good for all – to be used to profit a few.

Italian citizens have had just such an opportunity, and 25 million gave a resounding No.

Changes to Italian law to extend water distribution access to privateers and lift the cap on water bills were the subject of two of the four national referendums held on June 12-13, with the other two revoking legislation giving impunity to politicians and promoting nuclear energy.

Media commentary has focused on how the referendums marked a massive defeat for premier Silvio Berlusconi and his government.

The billionaire media magnate faces legal action over alleged financial and sex crimes and he is an enthusiast for nuclear energy.

He also publicly opposed the vote, telling Italians to “go to the beach.” Instead, people who in a string of previous referendums have done just that voted in their millions.

So the result was indeed a defeat for him personally, his People of Freedom party and his allies the Northern League.

Fuelled by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it was for sure a defeat for nuclear energy too, but it was also a massive set back for privatisation policies and those who preach the rollback of the state.

Out of the 57 per cent who voted, 96 per cent said No to the sell-off of their precious aqua vita.

Italians have abrogated article 15 of the Ronchi Decree, named after one of Berlusconi’s ministers Andrea Ronchi, which stipulated that by 2011 all municipal water companies would have to open up their capital to private companies.

They also repealed a provision that would have given privateers the right to “equal treatment and no discrimination” vis-a-vis the public sector and a right to buy up to a 70 per cent stake in local water companies, up from the current 40 per cent cap.

Finally, they overturned article 154 of the environmental code which gives investors in water services a guaranteed return on investment of 7 per cent, which effectively meant that private water companies could charge as much as they wanted to guarantee a higher profit.

The story of this campaign starts in the early 1990s when governments began a sweeping privatisation programme to reduce the public deficit and debt to meet the demands of membership of the single currency.

In this effort Rome was no longer constrained by ideological opposition – the main opposition Italian Communist Party dissolved in 1989-91 and the smaller Socialist Party had shifted sharply rightwards – or the clientelism of the Christian Democrat Party which had been swept away in the Clean Hands corruption scandals.

First ministers flogged off state industry. Then it was the turn of public services – including water.

To be sure, the privatisation of Italy’s water sector to date has not been anywhere near as complete as in Britain.

It followed the public-private partnership (PPP) model which was introduced in 1996 and 2000, forcing local authorities to become limited companies.

Most municipal water services still remain in entirely public hands, but where private investors have moved in it has become clear that the promised benefits of a competitive market – higher quality, higher investment and lower prices – have not materialised.

Bills have increased by 65 per cent over the past eight years as 21 of the top 25 most expensive water companies have private shareholders.

In Latina near Rome, an area where the French multinational Veolia has a stake in the PPP, users are paying between 300 per cent and 3,000 per cent more, and 700 families were forced to cut their water consumption, according to La Repubblica newspaper.

In contrast, 100 per cent publicly owned Milan is the cheapest in the country.

Privatisation enthusiasts have argued that these higher bills reflect higher investment, which is badly needed to stem water losses. However, there’s little evidence to support this.

The wholly publicly owned Naples water company is one of the cheapest in the country and it has the second-lowest water losses in the country after Milan.

Furthermore, water companies with private-sector shareholders have been found to engineer all sorts of wheezes to avoid digging into their own pockets, demanding state handouts to fulfil promised investment programmes.

If the rush for “blue gold” has burned holes in the pockets of the Italian public, it has also undermined democratic accountability as foreign multinationals have swept into the market.

France’s Suez, which has worldwide annual revenues of €85 billion, became the object of scrutiny by local regulators.

The head of the watchdog soon came to the conclusion that he had no real ability to effectively probe and police the private shareholders and, denouncing the “endemic weakness of the public-private” relationship, he threw in the towel.

In 2007 Suez and its local partner, Roman firm Acea – Italy’s biggest water utility in which Suez has an 11 per cent stake – were fined by the anti-trust body for restricting competition and prioritising market share over efficiency.

The growing power of local private shareholders and their multinational backers can also be measured by the fact that, despite having a minority stake in the water companies, they often get their candidates into top executive positions.

An analysis of all published studies on water privatisation published in 2009 by Cornell University’s professor Mildred Warner, an international expert on local government service delivery and privatisation, found no empirical support for taking water out of public ownership.

But none of these arguments would have won the day without a huge effort by trade union central CGIL working in regional and national alliances with a plethora of civil society organisations loosely co-ordinated by the Italian Forum of Water Movements.

The focus of the thousands of trade unionists and individuals in local committees across the country was to collect the 500,000 signatures required in order to trigger a referendum, which they exceeded by nearly a million.

It was a long haul involving a decade of hard work, identifying common positions, making the arguments and building alliances between public service workers and the users of the services they delivered.

Now there will be more hard work to get the referendum results implemented on the ground.

Since the arguments are the same for any service of public utility, the potential for a wider anti-privatisation push is enormous.

Already campaigners are stepping up activity over the privatisation of Italy’s public spaces, including their prized beaches.

There are huge corporate interests at stake, but the changing political tide means that in some places, such as Puglia and the new left administrations in Naples and Milan, anti-privatisation campaigners will get a sympathetic hearing.

It is also significant that the largest party of the centre left, the Democrats (PD), swung behind the campaign, albeit reluctantly, as they realised its mass support.

While the media is generally hostile, there is a potential ally in the influential liberal newspaper Il Repubblica.

Owned by Italy’s powerful Benetton group, the newspaper has long a strong advocate of smaller state and deregulation.

But it has become more sceptical of this position, recently running some excellent articles uncovering the reality of private enterprise’s record in running water services.

If clearly just a beginning, Italy’s referendum success nevertheless opens up a European front against privatisation.

With public services and workers currently under massive pressure in Britain and across Europe, it is important that we celebrate and learn from this victory.

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

Italians fire warning shot

By Tom Gill
Thursday 19 May 2011

Italy’s premier Silvio Berlusconi called them a national referendum on his rule.

If that’s the case, the local elections held in towns and cities across the country on May 15 and 16 were a massive No vote.

The prime minister’s People of Liberty party and his main coalition partner the xenophobic Northern League have lost support across their voter heartland in northern Italy.

Most significantly the billionaire media magnate took a real drubbing in Milan, the financial capital where he built his business empire and political power.

It is also where he is being tried on a string of charges, including paying an underage prostitute.

His trial on that charge and another, of abusing his official position, began last month.

The right has dominated Milan since Berlusconi’s entry into politics nearly 20 years ago.

So it was with dismay that the governing coalition saw it garner just 41 per cent of the vote, trailing the centre-left opposition by an unprecedented seven points.

It was the first time in 20 years that the centre-right had failed to get more than 50 per cent of the vote.

As neither candidate won more than half of the support, the vote will now go to a run-off at the end of the month.

If Milan was significant, another key test for Berlusconi was Naples, once again under a mountain of rubbish that he has repeatedly promised to eradicate.

This saw a close contest and meant his People of Liberty party failed to win the city outright as expected and will also go to a run-off.

This is expected to pose more difficulties for Berlusconi, whose supporters have historically shown a low turnout for second-round polls.

The centre-right coalition, which is half-way through its term, also lost in at least another 12 cities in northern Italy.

In total 13 million – a quarter of the voting population – were eligible to make their choice for mayors and councillors in 1,310 towns and 11 provinces. With a historically high turnout they did it with zeal.

Berlusconi, one of Europe’s richest men and with an iron grip over the country’s media, is not just being punished for the stench of sleaze, corruption and authoritarianism surrounding his rule.

Italians are angry that he has failed to revive Italy’s chronically low growth.

The economy expanded just 0.1 per cent in the first three months of the year, well below rates in Germany, France and even crisis-hit Greece.

Unemployment is running 8.3 per cent. Among 15 to 24-year-olds it stands at 29 per cent.

Voters were not just rejecting Berlusconi. Umberto Bossi’s Northern League failed to win mayoral seats in the first round ballot across its northern base including in Varese, a party stronghold.

It also failed in its bid to damage the left in “Red” Bologna, where it had been making big gains.

The new political movement of former Berlusconi ally Gianfranco Fini, now in opposition, did poorly too, dealing a blow to hopes of creating a “moderate” right-wing alternative to Berlusconi that would pursue the interests of capitalism as a whole rather than one, albeit significant, Italian capitalist.

Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party (PD), described the result as a sign of a “change of mood.”

“A wind of change is blowing from the north,” he said. But he has worries too.

In Naples, a candidate for the small but vociferous – and intensely anti-Berlusconi – Italy of Values party ran against the choice of PD and won more votes.

And it was left-wing Giuliano Pisapia who delivered the blow to Berlusconi in Milan after defeating the PD candidate in centre-left primaries.

Then there’s the Five Star movement of anti-Berlusconi blogger Beppe Grillo which remains a persistent threat in the north, most notably in Bologna where it took 9.5 per cent.

Dismissed by some critics as an anti-political populist movement for tarring all the other political movements with the same brush, Grillo’s group is underpinned by many disillusioned progressives.

Their 21,000 votes in Milan and 6,000 votes in Naples will count and they will likely plump for whatever candidate can keep the right out of power.

National parties to the left of the PD maintained their share of the vote compared to the previous local elections.

The Federation of the Left (FdS), comprising Italy’s two communist parties, secured around 4 per cent of the vote overall despite an almost total media blackout.

And the two-year-old Left Ecology Freedom Party, led by the charismatic left-wing Nichi Vendola, won the mayoral race in the Sardinian capital Cagliari and achieved 10 per cent in Bologna.

FdS argues that where the two forces did co-operate, as in a number of small towns, the results were impressive. But they are often rivals.

Vendola, heartened by the results, has other priorities.

Just like Milan’s frontrunner Pisapia, a former Communist Refoundation member and MP, he outmanoeuvred the PD leadership in primaries to become the centre-left’s preferred candidate for the governorship of southern region of Puglia – and went on to be elected twice.

This week Vendola, one of Italy’s most popular politicians, renewed his call to the PD leadership to start a primaries process to select a national centre-left candidate for the general elections, scheduled for 2013.

PD, which hails from the Italian Community Party that was dissolved in 1989-1991 – remains the main game in town on the left.

But it has for too long sought top-down compromises and alliances with forces to its political right. In the process it has stifled debate, lost touch and elections – or failed to hold onto power when it won.

The lesson from this week is that if a voice is given to those within PD and elsewhere on the left who are seeking radical change then this will deliver genuinely progressive and popular candidates – and they in turn can deliver success in the polls.

Whether PD is capable of recognising this is another question.

In the meantime the 74-year-old Berlusconi is still in power.

He has hinted that he may stand down at elections in 2013.

The outcome of the Milan poll later this month in his voter heartland may be crucial to his decision.

And he has real problems now with his ally Bossi, who blames him for the electoral debacle.

But Berlusconi is a survivor – he has fought himself out of a corner a number of times before and shouldn’t be counted out.


Twitter Updates

  • The rise of the #Greek extremes. 'Three hard-left parties collectively account for 42.5% of the vote' FT http://t.co/KGQC9Yg7 3 hours ago
  • The #Greek #Left Strikes Back. Wall St Journal. http://t.co/TKsyNGzO 3 hours ago
  • Democracy postponed or abolished? Italys unelected plutocrat premier forever! RT @Reuters http://t.co/LW9ulg5l 6 hours ago
  • “The people must not allow themselves to be flayed alive" #Greek #Communist Party. #quoteoftheday (well yesterday) " http://t.co/BSp9hzbO 1 day ago
  • #Europe can learn from Japan’s #austerity endgame. FT (free initial sub ) http://t.co/T8Nx2s9h 1 day ago
  • Video. #Greece RT @euronews Athens ablaze as protesters say 'no' to more cuts http://t.co/7C3kSVM8 1 day ago
  • Today first of 5 days of #strikes this month by #pilots of #Spain's Iberia. Dispute over creation of low-cost carrier. http://t.co/e5OkbUzw 1 day ago
  • #Greece’s new #austerity measures are ‘authoritarian, illegitimate’ says #European Left Party. http://t.co/GT0xPqF1 2 days ago
  • Quote of the day: These measures of annihilation will not pass - 89-year-old Manolis Glezos from Athens' Syntagma Square & cloud of teargas 2 days ago
  • Growing acceptance by Germany that Greece may have to leave eurozone growing. German ministers pressure Athens...http://t.co/kDhOiFA9 2 days ago
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