The defeat of the Olive Tree coalition in the recent general election in Italy came as no surprise to anyone. In the past five years it had carried out a series of anti-working class measures that had led to the disillusionment of a significant layer of workers and youth. The Olive Tree was an alliance between the PDS (Party of the Democratic Left, now known as the Left Democrats, simply DS) and a a number of smaller, bourgeois parties. Its policies were in line with the needs of the capitalists rather than those of the workers.
And yet what brought the DS into government was the magnificent movement that brought down Berlusconi back in 1994. Berlusconi's coalition had won the elections of that year and had then attempted to introduce drastic cuts in the pension system. The reaction of the workers was to come out spontaneously on strike and this forced the trade union leaders to take a lead. A series of regional general strikes shook Italy and culminated in a demonstration of 1.5 million on the streets of Rome.
Thus when the PDS was involved in government there were big hopes that this would mean that the welfare state was in safe hands. But this was not to be. The Olive Tree coalition proceeded to attack wages and pensions, to privatise a significant number of state owned companies, and to dismantle the welfare state.
Unemployment and wage cuts
Are these not the same policies of the Blair government? So why did the Left in Italy lose the recent elections when Blair's New Labour seems set to win the coming June elections? There are some important differences between the situation in Italy and that in Britain. A few figures will help to explain these differences. Unemployment in Britain is at a record low of 5.2%, whereas in Italy (although down on previous years) it is still at 9.9%. In the South the number of unemployed is much higher. Wages in Britain have gone up by 5% over the past year, with an inflation rate of 2.7%, but in Italy wages have only gone up by 2% over the past year, with an inflation rate of 2.8%. This means that real wages have actually gone down over the past year in Italy. Add to this the fact that years of so-called "concertazione" (a kind of partnership and co-operation) between the union leaders and the bosses have led to a real cut in wages of about 10%. And the last thing the Olive Tree government added to its list of sins was the extremely rapid casualisation of labour that took place in the year 2000. In just one year two million workers became temporary workers and a further two million were forced to become "self-employed", in reality working for the same boss but not being put on the books. This has dramatically worsened the situation facing the working class of Italy, especially the youth.
In Britain all this was done over a much longer period, and most of it was actually done by the who have been discredited by 18 years of government which are still fresh in the minds of many people. In Italy Berlusconi only governed for a few months back in 1994.
However, a worsening of the economic situation can also be expected in Britain. The recession is beginning to bite. That explains why Blair wanted an early election. In one year's time things may be very different, and an Italian type scenario would not be ruled out. Blair should take heed of what has happened in Italy.
However, it would also be wrong to think that a major turn to the right has taken place in Italy. Berlusconi's alliance of right-wing parties actually lost about 1.5 million votes compared to 1996. The Olive Tree coalition, if we include the votes for Rifondazione Comunista, also lost about 1.3 million votes. It is the complex electoral system and different alliances that determine the final outcome in terms of how many MPs each group gets.
All time low for the PDS
What is more significant within the Olive Tree coalition is the steep drop in votes for the DS (PDS). It lost about 1.7 million votes and got only 16.6%, an all-time low! This is now leading to the opening up of an internal struggle within the DS. D'Alema is preparing for a fight with the more openly bourgeois elements within the party. In this struggle it looks likely that he will lean on the leaders of the CGIL, the biggest union federation in Italy.
This process can be further accelerated by what is beginning to develop among the workers. The struggles of the recent period among the Fiat, McDonald's, health and transport workers and among the casual workers indicate that a process of radicalisation and mobilisation is taking place. The latest is the strike of the metalworkers on May 18. The "long sleep" of the Italian workers of the past few years is clearly coming to an end. The Italian bourgeois will live to regret the day Berlusconi came to power. Last time he was in government he successfully provoked a mass movement of the workers. The same will happen this time round, but on a much higher level.
The role of Rifondazione Comunista
Rifondazione Comunista, the party that emerged from the left-wing of the old Communist Party, was also affected by the disillusionment on the left, but contrary to what some feared (and others hoped) it was not annihilated. It received 1.8 million votes and got 11 MPs. In the past the leaders of Rifondazione had supported many of the measures of the Olive Tree coalition. Its subsequent lack of clarity also contributed to its electoral decline (in 1996 it got 3.1 million votes). It also suffered a right-wing split off (the PDCI), which got 600,000 votes this time. Even considering this split, the votes it got this time are down on the previous elections. Rifondazione is rooted in the traditions of the old Communist Party. It has important trade union cadres. It could play a role in building a genuine Marxist and revolutionary alternative in Italy both inside the trade union movement and among the youth.
The situation in Italy has many similarities with what happened back in 1960 when the Christian Democrats attempted to lean on the Fascists for support. It led to an insurrectionary movement! Although Berlusconi represents a temporary defeat, in the long run he will be remembered as the factor that was to rekindle the revolutionary traditions of the Italian working class.