Italy: Berlusconi’s victory will prepare a massive workers’ backlash

Berlusconi has won. We can already hear the wailing voices about "black reaction" and a "turn to the right". A closer look at the situation reveals a different picture. It reveals a polarisation between the classes of an unprecedented nature.

Berlusconi is back only two years after narrowly losing the 2006 elections. We can already hear the wailing voices about "black reaction" and a "turn to the right". A closer look at the situation reveals a different and more complex picture. It reveals a huge crisis of authority of the traditional leadership of the Left at a time of unprecedented polarisation between the classes.

The working class of Italy have been pummelled into the ground by successive governments. Now real wage levels of the average Italian workers are among the lowest in Europe. Pensions have been attacked, there have been widespread privatisations, and so on. And all this has been done by both the previous Berlusconi government and the Prodi government that followed it.

In these elections the workers were not offered any real alternative. The two main blocs, that around Veltroni's Democratic Party and the alliance around Berlusconi, presented very similar programmes, the programme of the Italian bosses.

All this explains the recent elections results. But before looking further into the meaning of these results let us look at the facts.

The Olive Tree coalition won almost 12 million votes in the 2006 elections. The "Rosa nel Pugno" [Rose in the Fist], half of whom joined the Democratic Party, won almost one million. In this weekend's elections the Democratic Party - a merger of the Olive Tree former constituent parties, the Democratic Left and the Christian-Democrat Popular Party - won 12 million votes. Thus the fusion of various forces to form the Democratic Party has not had the effect of appealing to a wider electorate. The Democratic Party simply held on to the votes of its component parts.

The "Italia dei Valori" party [Italy of Values] party, led by the former judge Di Pietro, who led the investigation into the widespread corruption under the old regime of the Christian Democracy and Socialist Party, received about 1,700,000 votes, almost double what it got two years ago. This small party had declared beforehand that it would form a coalition with the Democratic Party.

Berlusconi's old formation, the "Casa delle Libertà" [House of Freedoms], won around 19 million votes in 2006. Now his coalition has won 17 million. If we add the votes of the UDC [one of the splinter groups that emerged from the old Christian Democracy, led by Casini] and the Destra Fiamma Tricolore [a more openly reactionary right-wing formation that broke away from the National Alliance] we get a sum total of almost 20 million (19,999,422). Thus if we look at all the parties that used to be part of Berlusconi' coalition they have gained slightly, but in the process they have split into three, with the end result that those supporting Berlusconi directly are actually two million fewer than two years ago.

There is, however the phenomenon of the Northern League, which did rather well, gaining overall 8.3% of the national vote. It launched a campaign based on racism and reactionary right-wing demagogy, but rooted in the reality of declining living standards of the masses even in the richer North. The Northern League puts the blame for every problem on the central government and increasing immigration. There is also the phenomenon of the Movimento per l'Autonomia [Movement for Autonomy] which picked up 60% of its votes (1.13% of the national vote) in Sicily. These two formations have declared they will form a coalition with Berlusconi.

The two major blocs, that around Berlusconi, and the Democratic Party (which is basically the bulk of the outgoing Prodi government) now dominate Italian politics in what has been termed a tendency towards "bi-polar politics", like in Britain or the USA. The bloc around Berlusconi received a total of 46.81% and 340 MPs, while the Democratic Party, together with the Italy of Values party gained 37.54% and 239 MPs. Most of the smaller formations, including the Rainbow Left coalition and the old Socialist Party have been eliminated from parliament.

In the previous legislature the Prodi government had a working majority in Parliament, but an extremely slim majority of only two Senators in the Senate. Berlusconi on the other hand now has a solid majority in the Senate of 171 Senators against 130.

Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), the Italian Communists (PdCI) and the Greens won almost four million votes in 2006. This time they stood in an alliance, adding a small part of the breakaway group from the old Democratic Left (DS) to form the Sinistra Arcobaleno (the Rainbow Left). Thus it was a four party alliance, but all it managed to achieve was 1,124,000 votes, less than Rifondazione won when it stood on its own (but within the Prodi coalition) two years ago.

Two years ago when Rifondazione stood under its own banner it got more than 7%. Now, in alliance with three other forces it has managed less than half that figure. That is an answer - if any was needed - to Bertinotti's shift to the right in the recent period.

Smaller splinter groups to the left of the PRC such as the Workers' Communist Party and Sinistra Critica [Critical Left] did not manage to fill the vacuum on the left and could not benefit much from the wave of abstentions of the disappointed left-wing voters, polling 0.57 and 0.46% respectively. In fact it is worth noting that while the joint vote of these two small lists barely reached 1%, the PRC received 7% two years ago. Most of the votes lost by the PRC did not go to these two small formations. That answers the infantile idea that all that is necessary is to "raise the banner high" and the masses will come flocking.

The overall turnout was 80.47%, which by standards of many other countries would be considered high, but in Italy it represents a further fall of 3.1% in the numbers voting. One fifth of Italians felt that no party represented them in this election. In fact the comments prior to the elections were that the election campaign was "boring" and that there was "hardly any difference" between the two major camps.

In fact, according to polls, one in five voters only decided whom they were going to vote for at the last minute; so similar were the programmes of the two blocs being presented. A large number of those who abstained, again according to opinion polls, declared that they didn't vote because they were "unhappy with the programmes the various parties were presenting."

Thus, if we look at the overall picture we see a Democratic Party failing to win any more votes than its component parts had previously. We see the main right-wing coalition making some headway, but nothing that can be interpreted as a major turn to the right. And we have the "left" around Rifondazione paying for its collaboration with the Prodi government in the last parliament.

How does one explain all this? If one applied the simplistic and superficial approach of the less serious media one could draw the conclusion that Italy has moved to the right in reaction to the "left-wing" Prodi government. But nothing could be further from the truth. Prodi is not a man of the left. He is an open representative of the Italian bourgeoisie. His past political affiliations were to the Christian Democracy. His policies were dictated by the capitalist class.

The previous Berlusconi government (2001-2006) had introduced a series of severe cutbacks on workers' rights, including Law No. 30 (the Biagi Law) which introduced widespread casualisation of labour. It had also passed a law whereby the age of retirement will gradually increase as of the year 2010.

When Prodi came in none of these were reversed. Prodi continued from where Berlusconi had left off. He continued to make cuts in public spending unloading more and more onto the local authorities (town councils, provincial and regional councils) forcing these in many areas to seek finance by increasing local taxation, such as the ICI (council tax) and the special tax for rubbish collection. Many local councils have also been pushed into privatising the water supply, with a consequent massive increase in water bills. There have been many local protests, especially in the south, where people have organised themselves to resist these increases.

On top of that Prodi took an openly arrogant stand in relation to all the demands that were raised by the left, including important local mass movements such as the opposition movement to the widening of a NATO military basis in Vicenza and the movement of the entire people of the Val di Susa (in the Alps) against massive infrastructure works to open a new high speed train line. On both occasions Prodi gave a slap in the face to hundreds of thousands of people that were protesting and went back to his agenda as nothing had happened.

All this led to a growing unpopularity of the Prodi government. We can say that Prodi did too little for the bourgeoisie, in the sense that his attacks were not considered severe enough, and too much for the workers who have been pushed to the limit of what they can take. The failure of the Democratic Party to make the breakthrough it was hoping for can only be explained by this recent experience. The Democratic Party is seen as the Prodi government embodied in one party.

The Democratic Party got the backing of an important section of the Italian bourgeoisie. We can see that in some of the candidates, who stood on its lists. Individuals such as Matteo Colaninno, former chairman of the Young Industrialists (the youth equivalent of the CBI in Britain), or Massimo Calearo, chairman of the Engineering Industry's Association, the Federmeccanica.

The Democratic Party was in fact formed to provide the Italian bourgeoisie with what it had longed for, a genuine party of its own. The fact that in order to do so it had to count on the bulk of what remained of the old Italian Communist Party is an indication of its weakness in this field. The advantage of the Democratic Party for the bosses lies in the fact that it still has an important link to the trade unions. It can thus count on the collaboration of the right-wing leaders of the CGIL and the other unions.

However, this was not enough to determine the victory of the Democratic Party in the elections. The experience of the Prodi government had weakened its appeal to a significant layer of the working population, with its unpopular policies. But for the Italian ruling class this was not enough. It now demands a very firm hand in the period that we are entering.

The world economy is slowing down. The USA is clearly in recession and this will soon be felt in Europe and particularly in Italy. In the recent period when most of the capitalist powers were experiencing an important boom, Italy only managed a weak and much shorter economic upturn. The truth is that Italian capitalism cannot withstand the competition of better-equipped economies on the international world market.

That explains why the Italian bosses are preparing for a major attack on the working class. Montezemolo, the leader of the Italian Confederation of Industry (Confindustria), the bosses' union, has made absolutely clear what he expects from the next government. He is demanding widespread privatisation of what little is left of publicly held assets. He is demanding that by 2010 Italy should have a balanced budget. This will require major cuts in all fields.

While he calls for cuts for the workers he is demanding further concessions for the bosses, such as tax cuts for the capitalists. On the wages front, thanks to the collaboration of the trade union leaders, they have managed to get through a series of rotten wage deals.

The British magazine, The Economist, told Prodi what should be done a few years ago: eliminate 500,000 jobs and cut living standards by 30%. That has only been partially achieved. Now the pressure will be on Berlusconi to deliver the goods. This time he will have to be even harder in his attacks than during his previous period in office. He has a solid majority in both chambers and he will proceed to drastically cut into workers' living standards, in spite of any of his demagogic promises about tax cuts and cuts in council tax. The Italian capitalist system cannot afford this.

This situation is tailor made to provoke a major confrontation between the classes. Election results are important to assess the situation in a given country, but they do not give the whole picture, especially where no real alternative has been offered. What has been happening within the organised working class is as important, if not more important than the election results.

Last year the Prodi government pushed through a "welfare reform", in reality a package of cuts that worsened working conditions. It actually worsened the conditions for workers on temporary contracts, gave incentives to the bosses to exploit overtime more, and contributed to dismantling the system of national labour negotiations.

The trade unions organised a ballot in which millions of workers participated. The overwhelming majority of the trade union bureaucracy threw its weight behind the campaign for a "yes" vote, putting a gloss on the deal and presenting it as a step forward. In spite of this over a million workers voted "no". Of particular significance is the fact that opposition was very strong in the metal industry. In the major plants, such as Fiat there was a majority for the "no".

Something similar appeared during the recent labour contract negotiations in the metal industry. The bureaucracy managed again to push through a majority "Yes" vote, winning 75%. But in factories such as Fiat, Ferrari, Piaggio, Aprilia, in the shipbuilding industry and other major plants, there was a majority "No" vote, or at least a sizeable "no" vote. This reflects the real mood of the advanced layers of the working class.

A significant event showed the real mood of the workers in Italy at the end of last year. Seven workers at the Thyssen-Krupp factory in Turin were burned alive in an accident, that was clearly the fault of the company management that had not put in place all the safety procedures required by law.

A rally was organised in Turin for the workers who had died. When the trade union and political leaders (including Bertinotti of the PRC) came up onto the platform to speak they were massively booed by the thousands of workers present. This was shown on national TV. The faces of the angry workers could be clearly seen, shouting, "Traitors, you have sold out." That was the real face of the Italian working class! The workers do not feel represented by their own traditional leaders.

Under Prodi the trade union leaders could hold the workers back somewhat using the old trick that this is "our government". The workers will not see this new Berlusconi government in the same way. Half of those who voted did not vote for Berlusconi and his partners. A fifth did not vote for anyone at all. And among working people an angry mood is developing.

This is a recipe for renewed class struggle. One year ago we saw Sarkozy win in France. Then all the talk was of a turn to the right, the end of the left. Within a very short period of time he had managed to provoke the students, the railway workers and other sectors, and after ten months his previously high popular ratings had plummeted and he lost in the March local elections, with the Socialist Party making a comeback and even the Communist Party, which had done badly in previous years, making gains.

Berlusconi boasted after the results of this weekend that he had spoken to Sarkozy and that he had had "a beautiful and very long phone call" of congratulations. He may find that he can learn something from Sarkozy's experience, and that is that to govern against the working class is not easy!

The Italian workers have been frustrated on the electoral front, but life is getting ever more difficult. Wages are miserably low, casualisation of labour is widespread, and prices are shooting up. They will have to turn to the industrial front, which means strike action and protest.

That is where the Democratic Party comes in. Berlusconi himself has actually pointed out that in the programme of the Democratic Party there are "many points that could be superimposed on that of our programme". It is a question of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, two bourgeois formations at the service of the ruling class. Although that is not how many workers see it. In spite of transforming themselves into a bourgeois party, the leaders of the former PDS are still seen as different by many workers. The Democratic Party still has the support of a significant layer of the trade union tops. Thus, once Berlusconi's A-team is exposed, they will bring on the B-team.

This is where Rifondazione Comunista comes in. It has been smashed in the elections. Bertinotti was hell-bent on forming a "new" left party, including the Greens, the Italian Communists and the small group that came over from the PDS. Bertinotti did not organise a party congress, but went ahead publicly to declare his intention that the parties that make up the Rainbow Left should unite in one party, where communism would be considered merely a "cultural tendency" on a par with feminism and ecology!

Bertinotti has now announced his resignation, and rightly so. But he still insists on his project of a "new party". He no doubt is convinced that the name Communist and the Red Flag and Hammer and Sickle are vote losers. This shows how superficial his approach is. The reason why the party did so badly is because it was an integral part of the Prodi government. It took upon itself responsibility for all the rotten policies of the Prodi government, thus making it indistinguishable from the Democratic Party. In the minds of many workers the reasoning must have been "why vote for such a small formation when there is the Democratic Party which is more or less the same?" There would also have been the desire to stop Berlusconi coming to power which would have pushed workers to rally around the Democratic Party.

The only way Rifondazione could have hoped to play a role would have been by not entering the Prodi government in the first place! They should have based themselves on the real militant mood that exists within an important layer of the working class and youth and built on that.

Now the party is facing a debacle far worse than the French Communist Party. The effect has been an enormous collapse in authority of the leadership. Its policy has failed, and failed miserably. The Marxists in the party warned over and over again against the disastrous policies that the leadership had adopted. Now is the time for a reappraisal of the whole previous period. The party must change direction immediately. The party congress, which had been scandalously postponed by the leadership, should now be brought forward. Let the ranks speak and decide.

It is not Communism that is dead in Italy. What has failed is the openly reformist stance of the party leadership. The Bertinottis of this world will no doubt draw the conclusion that "we must moderate even further". The opposite is required. The party must put itself at the head of the advanced layers. It is a fact that the rank and file workers of the party are at the forefront of the radicalisation that is taking place in many workplaces. That is where the party must concentrate its forces now.

There will be a workers' backlash at some point in the not too distant future. The genuine Communists will be part of that movement. In these conditions many party members and activists, who in the past may have listened to the Marxists but would still have some illusions in the party leadership, will now be more open. In the long run, the future of the party depends on the strengthening of the Marxist wing.

In the midst of the depressed mood that must be gripping many on the left in Italy the ideas of Marxism offer the only real explanation for what has happened and a way out!

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