Berlusconi is back

Dark Days for Italian Politics

“ITALY IS facing its darkest times since the birth of the republic”: this is the current editorial perspective of Il Manifesto, the independent left-wing Rome daily.

Media billionaire Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom coalition (PDL) scored a decisive victory in the April elections and brought far Right politicians back into major positions of power. Gianfranco Fini, president of the lower house of Parliament, and Gianni Alemanno, the new mayor of Rome, are both former members of the MSI (Italian Social Movement), the successor to Mussolini’s fascists.

There are disturbing signs that this electoral shift to the right has given a green light to anti-immigrant, racist, and homophobic violence:

  • In Verona, shortly after the elections, twenty-nine-year-old Nicola Tommasoli, a Jew whose family came to Italy from Romania, was beaten into a coma by five members of a neo-fascist gang called the Veneto Skinheads. Tommasoli died on May 10;
  • In mid-May, groups of young men violently attacked Bangladeshis and other South Asians working in the Pigneto section of Rome;
  • In late May, neo-fascists from a group called Forza Nuova (New Force) organized an event at the main campus of Rome University and physically attacked left-wing student protesters.

There are other, less immediately violent indications of far Right confidence. Alemanno, the Rome mayor, has proposed naming a street after Giorgio Almirante, founder and leader of the MSI in the 1970s and 1980s.

Berlusconi’s new Minister for Equal Rights, Mara Carfagna (a former topless model and Miss Italy runner-up) refused to recognize this year’s Gay Pride Day, declaring that homophobia is no longer an issue in Italian society. It was a sign of hopeful defiance that some 300,000 turned out for the Rome June 8 Pride Day parade anyway.

The arrogant swagger from the Right coincides with a sense of crisis at the level of basic social needs and services. For months garbage has been piling up in the streets of Naples and the surrounding area, a result of local government ineffectiveness and of the power of organized crime in the waste management industry. In recent weeks Berlusconi has sent military forces to the area and has boasted that he will personally oversee an orderly cleanup.

Local resident have met these emergency measures with angry opposition. They realize that Berlusconi’s plan involves nothing more than moving the garbage from one dumping area to another while creating the illusion of strong, decisive central government intervention.

Meanwhile the center-Left opposition is in complete disarray, issuing statements of moralistic “concern” one day and calling for bipartisan consultation and cooperation the next. Walter Veltroni, previous mayor of Rome, heads the recently renamed Democratic Party (PD), which shows all the weaknesses that brought down the previous center-Left government headed by Romano Prodi.

Also in a state of disorganized confusion is what remains of the socialist Left. Rifondazione Comunista, the strongest party on the left, had been part of the Prodi governing coalition and paid a serious price in terms of political credibility for supporting Italian military participation in NATO and pro-business economic policies. In the April elections, Rifondazione led a new “rainbow” slate that failed dramatically. Many on the left refused to vote at all. There is a good deal of hand-wringing and a lot of despair at the moment—but little indication of a fresh initiative from the left.

The current crisis in Italian politics—the aggressive resurgence of the Right in the wake of weak, ineffective centrist government—arises from a constellation of underlying economic and social factors. Despite some improvements in the period from 2005–07, the Italian economy has consistently lagged behind other European Union countries. Persistent budget and trade deficits, plus a tax system plagued by corruption, has meant an underperforming economy even in relatively good times.

Recently Italy has been hit by the credit crisis and economic slowdown radiating out from the U.S. recession. In response, the Berlusconi government promises tax cuts for the wealthy and cuts in health care, transportation, and social services for everyone else.

Unemployment is on the rise; wages and pensions are falling. A recent report from the national bureau of statistics shows that a third of Italian families are living in poverty. The historic movement of workers from the impoverished south to the more prosperous north of Italy, which had subsided in recent years, has resumed, heightening social tensions exploited by the Lega Nord (Northern League), which doubled its percentage of the national vote in April. Rooted in Lombardy and other northern regions of Italy, the Lega deploys openly racist, anti-immigrant propaganda in its campaign to separate itself economically, and to some degree politically, from the rest of the country.

Undocumented immigrant workers have become the prime scapegoats in the Berlusconi government’s current ideological onslaught. Efforts to treat as criminals all foreigners who come to Italy without a work permit and contract have been sharply criticized by the European Union, and Berlusconi has had to soften his stand somewhat. But pressure from the Lega Nord and other far Right elements insures that anti-immigrant racism will continue to pose real dangers.

Will the broad Left recover and mobilize serious resistance anytime soon? For now the question remains open. This year’s military parade on the holiday commemorating the founding of the Italian Republic (June 2) marched past Berlusconi and his ministers, down the street Mussolini constructed to revive memories of the Roman Empire, with no visible protest—for the first time in years.

Bush is scheduled to visit Berlusconi on June 11 to discuss Italy’s continuing participation in U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Kosovo. Left-wing groups have called for an all-out protest. There are hopes that widespread and bitter opposition to the war in Iraq can ignite a new wave of protest against the current government.

The political Right has seized the initiative under conditions of economic and social collapse, at a moment when the centrist mainstream is widely seen as incapable of governing effectively. The current situation in Italy, though certainly not identical to that of the early 1920s, is still hauntingly familiar. The Italian Left faces a critical challenge.

Issue #74

November 2010

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