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Lindsey German


Falling idol

(January 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 182, January 1995, p. 13.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Silvio Berlusconi – only ten months ago the triumphant victor in Italy’s elections – held office for only 226 days. Splits in the ruling right wing coalition led to votes of no confidence being tabled against the prime minister. He resigned to avoid the final humiliation of losing such a vote in the Italian parliament.

Last spring, Berlusconi was hailed on both the left and right as the new man who could overcome the historic weaknesses of Italian politics. His control of the media, it was argued, made him all powerful and allowed him to impose a new political agenda.

Nothing could have been more wrong. As we said last April, his government ‘will be extremely fragile. The right wing alliance in Italy has been cobbled together from three quite different and antagonistic forces.’ (April 1994 SR). The alliance between the right wing populist Northern League, the fascist MSI with its base in the south, and Berlusconi’s creation Forza Italia was a marriage of convenience which has now ended in a messy divorce.

One of Forza Italia’s strongest planks of appeal was its anti-party nature and its attacks on corruption. Many Italians who voted for it thought it would mean a new era free from corruption. But Berlusconi was very much a man of the old political system which is completely rotten. He was even a member of the Masonic P2 lodge, with close connections to right wing terrorism.

Now Berlusconi is himself entangled in the corruption allegations which brought down the previous government, his brother and business associate was given a prison sentence just before Xmas and his media monopoly has been judged unconstitutional. But the key reason for his demise was his failure to achieve the Thatcherite project he set himself.

Extra-parliamentary opposition was immense. In November 1.5 million people demonstrated in Rome against Berlusconi’s plan to cut state pensions. He was doomed from the moment that he backed off in the face of a general strike. It was then he lost the confidence of the Italian ruling class.

Berlusconi’s retreat on pensions marked the beginning of his downfall, and brought to the fore his open warfare with Northern League leader Umberto Bossi. As the Financial Times commented: ‘Not surprisingly, [Bossi] chose the moment the premier came under investigation for corruption by Milan magistrates and had been humiliated by unions threatening a general strike.’

At one point, Berlusconi threatened to call on his supporters to come on the streets in protest. Nothing happened.

As we went to press, Berlusconi and his fascist allies in the MSI were arguing that new elections should be called, but it is more likely that a new coalition government will be formed from other parties. This raises the prospect of the old parties who have dominated Italian politics since the war once again playing a central role. Bossi would like a government with the remnants of the old Christian Democrats and other centre parties.

The former Communists in the PDS – still one of the strongest single parties – talk of a grand coalition embracing all but the extremes of left and right. By this they mean the hard left Rifondazione Communista on the one hand, and the MSI on the other.

Yet such a government would continue the anti-working class policies of Berlusconi. The PDS would bend over backwards to be moderate and tell workers not to press their demands for fear of creating instability. And to equate Rifondazione with the fascists can only mislead Italian workers. Rifondazione, whatever its political weaknesses, wants to build opposition to ruling class and government attacks. The fascists are out to destroy working class organisation.

The Italian situation demonstrates how polarised politics are. The tragedy is that no one in Italy is really building on the successes of the trade union campaign against the pensions law, nor are they presenting any kind of socialist alternative to the policies put forward by the PDS.

The danger in this situation is that the fascists can grow from the weakness and divisions of the other right wing parties. While Berlusconi himself could not create a stable government, he could pave the way for the much greater threat of Gianfranco Fini’s MSI. However, recent local elections results were not good for the fascists, even in their traditional stronghold of the south.

The volatility of Italian politics means that they are not at all certain to benefit from the collapse of this government. Their base is still based on voting rather than organised support on the streets and is therefore much more susceptible. But their longer term defeat depends on the mobilisation of the left and organised workers.

The strength of the mobilisations in recent months demonstrate that the Italian working class movement is still one of the most militant and best organised in Europe. The test in the coming months is whether it can move onto the offensive against continued government attempts to make it pay for the crisis, or whether it will yet again be sidetracked by the role of the PDS in particular.

The whole government crisis demonstrates the inherent weakness and instability of Italian capitalism. And the problems remain. The budget deficit is still there. All of which suggests big battles ahead.

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