Italy: the beginning of the end for Berlusconi

The right wing in Italy suffered a devastating defeat in last weekend’s regional elections. Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia suffered the most, losing 1.8 million votes compared to the regional elections in 2000 and 4.5 million compared to the 2001 general elections. This marks the beginning of the end for Berlusconi.

All the attention of the world media is presently concentrated on the death of the Pope and his funeral which is taking place today. But there is a joke doing the rounds of Italy at the moment, which basically says that Wojtyla carried out another miracle with the massive defeat of Berlusconi in last weekend’s regional elections. Of course, it wasn’t a miracle; it was rooted in the real situation developing in Italy.

While the media hype was building up around the death of the Pope millions of Italians turned out to vote on April 3 and 4 to inflict a severe blow against Berlusconi. Italy is divided into 20 regions. In 13 of them the regional councils were up for re-election. Prior to the elections Berlusconi’s “House of Freedoms” coalition controlled 8 of them. He has now lost 6 of these, and even in the two he held onto, Lombardy and the Veneto, his majority was greatly reduced. Berlusconi’s coalition suffered stunning defeats in Lazio and Puglia in the south, both previously considered strongholds of the hard right.

The right wing in Italy have suffered a devastating defeat, but Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia suffered the most, losing 1.8 million votes compared to the regional elections in 2000 and 4.5 million compared to the 2001 general elections. This marks the beginning of the end for Berlusconi.

Berlusconi’s right wing government is now in crisis, and it could end with the premier having to abandon his involvement in Italian politics. He has declared his intention not to resign. But next year he will have to face a general election, and the most likely outcome is that he will face another devastating defeat. He will aggravate this with his clear intention to steamroll through many of his plans, such as changes to the Constitution, and will thus come into conflict with everyone. He will behave like a man who knows he has little time left. In the past Berlusconi has survived other defeats, but as the Corriere della Sera explained, this defeat was “so crushing that it cannot be talked down or excused.”

Berlusconi had attempted some last minute demagogic measures, such as two recent rounds of cuts in income tax. He also raised the prospect of pulling Italian troops out of Iraq, as in Italy a huge majority of the population – 70% according to recent polls – is against the war in Iraq. But it didn’t work. In an apparent paradox, Berlusconi has been the longest-serving Italian Prime Minister since the fall of Fascism! But the paradox is not a real one. It is precisely because he has been in power for so long, and has been carrying out severe attacks on the workers of Italy that he has suffered such a defeat.

What this reflects is that millions of Italian workers, pensioners, students, unemployed could see straight through Berlusconi. They are fed up of the constant attacks on their standards of living, on their hard won rights. They want something different. This was already clear in a series of mobilisations that have taken place over the last few years, with massive general strikes, many militant localised strikes and also the massive turnout of 3 million in Rome [more than the number of pilgrims reported to be in Rome today] against the war in Iraq.

The strategists of Italian capital had been preparing for this event for some time. They have prepared their “alternative” in the form of Prodi and the “Centre-Left” coalition. It now looks very likely that next year Prodi will win in the general elections and will be the next Prime Minister. The coalition around Prodi represents an “alliance” between key sections of the Italian bourgeoisie and the tops of the labour movement.

However, the Italian bourgeois would be fooling themselves if they think that they have now a stable “two-party system” whereby when one of the two main fronts (Centre-Left and Centre Right) is exposed after serving some time in government the other side can take over. The present defeat of the right wing in Italy could lead to a situation where it will be incapable of playing this role for some time to come. Thus the bourgeois would only have the Centre-Left.

The present right wing coalition has two main components, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Fini’s National Alliance. Fini is in a position to emerge as the real leader of the right, but this will be within the context of an overall decline of the right. He will also pay a heavy price for his coalition with Berlusconi. The National Alliance party has always tried to portray itself as a party that is sensitive to the needs of layers of ordinary workers, pensioners, small businesses, etc. This is a leftover from the days when the National Alliance has no qualms about maintaining its historical links to the old Fascist regime and the populist demagogy that went with it.

On the international level, Bush and Blair, while they are paying their respects to the Pope, must be reflecting on the fact that another “ally” in their so-called war on terror is facing defeat, just as Aznar in Spain was defeated last year.

The situation opening up in Italy is far more unstable than many may think. The year ahead of us will be one of a right-wing government without any real authority among the masses, facing an aroused working class that can see that Berlusconi is not all almighty, but can easily be defeated. We can expect more militant trade union struggles like those we have seen in the past period.

Thus the next Prodi-led Centre-Left coalition will not be like the last one. The workers are preparing to present their bill. They have a long list of demands that need to be met. The leaders of the left in Italy are presenting Prodi as the saviour of the working class, the man who can defeat Berlusconi. But this man has been in power before. His track record is clear. He is an agent of the bosses and will carry out their programme. In fact the last Centre-Left coalition government carried out more privatisations than any other previous government!

What is tragic in this situation is the role Bertinotti, leader of Rifondazione Comunista, is playing. He is building up the image of Prodi. He is basically strengthening Prodi in the eyes of the masses. But his party is gaining nothing from this. On the contrary, he is weakening the links with the most advanced layers of the militant youth and workers. His move is not even paying any dividends in terms of votes for the party. Compared to last year’s European elections the party lost 1%, getting the same number of votes as in the previous 2000 regional elections, which (together with the 1999 European elections) was the lowest vote the party had ever achieved.

It will be even worse when the party actually enters a future Prodi government. That government will attack the working class. No one can have any illusions that it will be any different. Prodi is backed by a significant part of the Italian bourgeoisie, and that is because they know his programme and what he will do. He will thus come into conflict with the Italian labour movement. While this happens, Bertinotti will have his ministerial positions, and he will pay a price for this.

These issues were discussed at the party’s recent congress where Bertinotti presented Prodi as being a friend of the workers. But over 40% of the party voted against Bertinotti, and many of those who voted for him, did so with a critical view. The debate that took place at that congress will not have been wasted. The Marxists presented a clear perspective of how things will unfold in the coming period. Experience will teach, and the Marxists are in a position to gain much from the coming period.