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Italian Elections 2013: A shock for Eurocrats – and the Left

Dave Stockton

Stock markets fell and EU leaders reacted in horror as the result came in from Italy’s general election on 24-25 February. Their hoped-for winners, “responsible” parties that would continue to push austerity, had failed to win a working majority in parliament. Eurocrats had hoped the austerity programme of cuts and neoliberal “reforms” designed by the previous Monti government would continue to shore up Italian capitalism and the Euro. Instead the Italian people, long denied elections, have rejected austerity at the first opportunity, raising the spectre of another round of political instability and deadlock in Italy. As the Eurozone’s third largest economy, this would likely pitch the entire region back into crisis.

The Eurocrats’ hopes lay in Mario Monti and Pier Luigi Bersani. At the height of Italy’s last debt crisis in November 2011, the former European Commissioner Monti was made a “Life Senator” by President Napolitano, and invited to form a government of economic “experts” to replace the thoroughly discredited media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, whose right wing populist government had delayed making cuts for years. Monty’s unelected government has imposed austerity on the Italian people for fifteen months, supported by Bersani.

Bersani’s Democrats, the largest descendant of Italy’s once two million strong Communist Party, long ago ditched any ideological connections to communism. But it still has the support of Italy’s largest union federation, the Italian Confederation of Labour (CGIL), which has put up only the feeblest resistance to Monti’s reforms.

The Eurocrats’ calculated on passive union support for a Bersani-Monti government, freed from reliance on Berlusconi, and able to continue the austerity programme. But their preferred candidates fell far short of a popular majority; Bersani’s centre-left alliance received 29.55 per cent of the vote and Monti’s alliance a humiliating 10.56 per cent.

Worse came with news of the unexpectedly high vote (29.17 per cent) for Berlusconi’s populist coalition – he has brazenly reinvented himself as an opponent of “German” austerity – and that of the comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S), who won 25.54 per cent of the popular vote. Grillo’s campaign attacked not only the EU austerity plans but entire Italian political elite, left and right.

Thanks to Italy’s undemocratic constitution, even Bersani’s wafer thin lead over Berlusconi was enough to give him 340 of the 617 seats in the lower house, over half! That, however, is not enough to form a government because the constitution gives the upper house equal law making powers.

Corriere della Sera (Italy’s most prestigious bourgeois newspaper) groaned that the country was, “ungovernable.” Other foreign observers insisted that the Italians – like the Greeks and the Irish before, must vote again till they got it “right,” a government acceptable to the markets and EU bankers.

Grillo: no deal

Bersani and the Democrats immediately tried to court Grillo but he contemptuously rejected Bersani’s overtures. He stated his movement would not enter a coalition with any of the other parties, which he expects to form a coalition and further discredit themselves, forcing elections and an outright majority for the M5S, sweeping away most of the old politicians.

“We’ll go into parliament and we won’t even think of messy deals, not even teeny weeny messy deals. We’ll be an extraordinary force and we’ll do everything that we have said we’ll do in the election campaign. Citizen’s income, let’s start by being alongside the most vulnerable: nobody must get left behind. Let’s start to use different words. There’ll be 150 of us inside and a few million outside. …. We’ll start to do what we’ve always said – our stars: water in public hands, schools in public hands, public health service. If they follow us they follow us. If they don’t, the battle will be very harsh for them, very harsh.”

But Grillo’s stance has provoked a revolt amongst his own followers. 150,000 signed an online petition calling for him to open a dialogue with the Centre Left alliance led by the Democratic Party. It will be interesting to see how the supposedly superior model of “virtual” democracy works and whether Grillo will succumb to an online plebiscite.

Crisis of leadership

Whatever the parliamentary arithmetic produces, the most important issue in the Italian election is that the labour movement was unable to take any advantage from the obviously widespread opposition to the government’s austerity programme.

The reason is plain enough. The Democratic Party supported Monti’s reforms more consistently, even more enthusiastically, than Berlusconi. In this, Bersani is following the pattern of the whole European centre-left; utilise the support of the official labour movement to get elected with vague promises of stimulating the economy, then carry out the austerity policies demanded by the financial and industrial elite of big capital. Labour in Britain will prove no different!

Meanwhile, in Italy as in most other European countries, the bureaucracies of major union federations, like the CGIL, stifle resistance or, at best, turn it into once or twice a year “days of action” or impotent parades. Even FIOM, the traditionally more militant metal workers section of the CGIL, which showed a more militant stance under Berlusconi and even talked of the need for a new working class party, fell silent under Monti. The failure of the official left and the big unions to defend workers explains in large measure the rise of the likes of Beppe Grillo

The Italian left has failed

But even more striking is the abject failure of the anticapitalist left of the first decade of the 2000s. These forces – left reformist, libertarian and self styled revolutionaries – did create a truly mass movement of workers and youth, which was able to mobilise millions on the streets against war and neoliberalism. What they could not do was build a political party with a strategy for defeating the various bourgeois governments and for posing the question of power for workers and youth. Instead at the heart of the left stood Rifondazione Comunista (RC).

In the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s RC played a prominent role, not only in Italian politics, but also on the European Left. It was widely regarded as a party model to emulate, just as Syriza in Greece today. What has happened in Italy over the past decade is a warning to those with illusions that a reformist- party, whose strategy is a parliamentary road to power, will some how or other find the right road for the working class, especially if it is “plural” i.e., has reformist and revolutionary tendencies in its ranks. If they think this will save all the time-consuming efforts of building parties on a revolutionary programmes the sorry history of RC proves otherwise.

Those who took part in the mobilisations against the G8 in Genoa in 2001 and the Florence European Social Forum in November 2002, heard RC’s main leader, Fausto Bertinotti, reject the two years when RC had supported a government led by the Christian Democrat Romano Prodi, and promise “never again!”

Yet, in 2006, RC not only supported but also actually entered another Prodi government, citing the need to keep out Berlusconi. Bertinotti was rewarded by the presidency of the lower house and RC reciprocated by supporting Italian participation in the occupation of Afghanistan and the extension of a huge US air base near Vicenza to help it wage the war on terror.

The result was a series of splits by the left from RC, followed by a catastrophic defeat for the party in the 2008 elections, when Berlusconi was elected after all and RC lost all its deputies and senators. In that election, RC then stood as part of the Sinistra Arcobaleno (Rainbow Left) a mini-popular front with small anticorruption and green parties. It received 1,124,428 votes (3.08 per cent). For the first time since the Second World War, not a single deputy calling themselves a Communist was elected to the Italian parliament.

In 2013, RC tried the same tactic forming another popular front with the equally uninspiring name Civil Revolution (Rivoluzione Civile) headed by Antonio Ingroia, previously an anti-mafia mayor from Palermo. This alliance received only 765,172 votes (2.25 per cent).

So why has the left, reformist and revolutionary, failed? It can be summed up in one word: opportunism, the pursuit of supposed short-term objectives, at the cost of the longer term interests of the working class as a whole. The alternative can also be put briefly; “no support for any government of the ruling class”; i.e. any government that will make the workers pays for saving the system.

Rifondazione’s repeated inability to break from the policies of forming class collaborationist governments with the excuse of “keeping out the right”, brought about its electoral downfall as well as disorganising and frittering away the strength of the Italian left at a national and local level. Unless the Italian left dumps the whole rubbish of the popular front, together with its fear that posing the question of working class power will open the road to fascism, the truly magnificent struggles of Italian workers and youth will repeatedly come to nothing.

The libertarian and syndicalist trends on the Italian left, with their anti-political prejudices, also have to take a share of the blame. They have played a remarkable role in several waves of social movements and militant strikes, setting up networks of social centres and social forums, but their failure to build, indeed their aversion to building, a fighting party that could challenge for power not primarily via elections but in the workplaces and on the streets, eventually led to the decline of these institutions. Here, too, their “counter-hegemonic” strategy of countervailing the state power “from below” and building an alternative anti-capitalist culture, only led time and again to avoiding any head-on confrontation with the right wing and centre left governments.

With public debts of 127 per cent of GDP and rising, second only to Greece, Italy is at a crossroads. Deep austerity is the only way out of a crisis for capitalism, on the back of an historic defeat for the Italian working class and terrible poverty. The only way out of this impasse for Italian workers, youth and poor is to force the Italian capitalists and Eurozone banks and multinationals to pay for the crisis is through revolution, lead by a new working class party clearly pledged to a revolutionary strategy which breaks decisively with these traditions of defeat and impotence.

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