Italy’s hour of darkness

Geoff Andrews
17 April 2008

Geoff Andrews is staff tutor in politics at the Open University. He is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), published in Italian as Un Paese Anormale (effepilibri, 2007). His The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure will be published by Pluto Press in 2008. Geoff Andrews is also an associate editor of Soundings

In the end, it was Silvio Berlusconi who produced the surprises. The leader of the Popolo delle Libertà (People of Freedom) coalition managed to overcome age, an absurd electoral system, and the economic failures of his 2001-06 government to secure a clear majority in both houses in Italy's general election of 13-14 April 2008. He was helped by the powerful surge of the Lega Nord (Northern League), which doubled its representatives in parliament, and by the catastrophic performance of the "rainbow" left-green alliance, which failed to get even a single member elected to either house. As he prepares to return to the prime ministership for a third time, the great political showman has promised a new phase of stable government that will last the full five-year term.

Indeed, amongst the mix of narrow provincialism and pompous hyperbole that characterises Italy's discredited political class - La Caste, as Sergio Rizzo & Gianantonio Stella have described it - there is a palpable collective sigh of relief that the country has at least produced a government with a clear majority. The argument is that the election outcome - a clear victory for one side, fewer parties represented in parliament, and the beginnings of "bipartisanship" - will bring much needed stability and unity. Even Walter Veltroni, the vanquished leader of the Democratic Party, appears to view the election result as a partial victory. His party, which polled marginally better than the L'Ulivo coalition (composed of the same groups which contested the previous election in April 2006), has welcomed the demise of the rainbow left as a prerequisite to "normal" politics, and has joined other politicians and commentators in Italy who have proclaimed the dawn of an era of political stability. Italy, the argument runs, will prove governable after all.

After the verdict

In fact, the election result promises nothing of the kind. Italy's stability cannot be reduced to a senate majority and more clearly delineated parties and coalitions - which are themselves dependent upon complex and contrasting political identities. Moreover, Italy's urgent need is a new national settlement based on fundamental institutional reforms to allow transparency and legality - and to facilitate urgently needed economic renewal; in no way can the new political landscape in itself deliver this.

In addition, Berlusconi is driven by quite different values than such wishful thinking implies, and it is unlikely that he will enter into serious negotiations with Veltroni on Italy's public interests. His new government will be dependent on the Northern League, which will strengthen its demands for fiscal federalism; remain hostile to Rome and the south; and display a vicious xenophobia towards Italy's immigrants.

The democratic forces which might have resisted these developments are thus in danger of missing the significance of the election result, which has moreover left them seriously divided as well as even more weakened. There will be no green representation in either house of the new Italian parliament; no members of the small "democratic left" group (which had refused to join the Democratic Party); and no communists (a fact apparently celebrated by Walter Veltroni - who owes his thirty-year political career to the former Italian Communist Party (PCI) - even more than Berlusconi).

But Veltroni's wider response to the election result appears to misread the electoral geography. He wanted to be rid of Rifondazione Comunista (the refuseniks who scorned the PCI's transformation into social democrats) and other leftists in order to win support in the centre and thus entrench bipartisan politics. But there is no "radical centre" in Italy, apart from Antonio Di Pietro's Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values), which saw its vote rise...to 5%. In order to challenge Berlusconi's coalition, Veltroni will have to court the voters of the Union of Christian Democrats - the party closest to its old-style predecessor; but if he attempts this he will lose support in his own ranks.

The problems Francesco Rutelli (culture minister in Romano Prodi's outgoing government) is encountering in succeeding Veltroni as Rome's mayor (despite being endorsed by the football star Francesco Totti) is an early warning of this problem; the contest with his post-fascist opponent Gianni Alemanno has gone to a second, run-off ballot on 27-28 April after many leftwing voters, uninspired by Rutelli's candidature, stayed at home in the first round.

Among Geoff Andrews's articles on openDemocracy:

"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)

"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (1 February 2006)

"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (29 March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (6 April 2006)

"Italy between fear and hope" (11 April 2006)

"Romano Prodi's fragile centre" (27 February 2007)

"Walter Veltroni: Italy's man for all seasons" (3 July 2007)

"Italy: another false dawn" (22 October 2007)

"Italy's governing disorder" (31 January 2008)

"Italy: the ungovernable nation" (11 April 2008)

Inside the crisis

The crisis of governability will thus remain, the new political majorities notwithstanding. Much of Italy is already deeply compromised. As many as one third of all Calabrians are thought to be connected in some way to the local mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta; while the piles of rubbish on the streets of Naples during the long strike were connected to the economic interests of the Camorra, which controls refuse collection in the city. The outgoing governor of Sicily, Salvatore "Totò" Cuffaro, who in January 2008 was found guilty of mafia favours and banned from office for five years, will shortly take up his position as an elected member of the senate.

In these circumstances, even Silvio Berlusconi's choice of ministers - Franco Frattini is the probable next foreign minister, with some other more redolent of the harder right - seems far less important than his lack of concern with the public interest and the very integrity of the state. There is little to suggest any change in Berlusconi's determination to ignore constitutional procedures, to conflate his private interests with those of the country, or to indulge the wider culture of illegality that has clouded his era. Indeed, much of Italy's economic stagnation is due to the power of organised crime and private cartels, and Berlusconi's economic solutions are likely to give a green light to tax evasion and the power of mafia clans. This election itself leaves questions yet to be resolved: in the campaign's latter stages, it was reported that Marcello Dell'Utri, Berlusconi's longstanding ally (who helped launch Forza Italia and who has subsequently been found guilty of mafia collaboration) attempted to organise the forging of ballot papers in the elections for Italians living in Latin America.

In this respect, the situation in which Italy finds itself as Berlusconi takes power for the third time is worse than when he started out in 1994. Then, as Ida Dominijanni has pointed out, "it was a novelty...it was a vote in search of miracles. Today, it is a vote in search of stability" (see Per la razza e il portafoglio, Il Manifesto, 15 April 2008). The reality that Italians have entrusted the nation's "stability" to a "strong leader" prepared to abuse the power entrusted to him and to seek (together with his post-fascist and xenophobic allies) authoritarian solutions to Italy's problems suggests that the election marks the deepening of Italy's crisis.

Into the night

The very legitimacy of the Italian state is in question. "What has become of politics in Italy", the journalist Alvaro Ranzoni told me, is that it has been reduced to "a way of giving and receiving favours of all kinds and at every level. This is not a democracy as we have known it in Europe, but similar to what happens in South America."

This state-level predicament will surely deepen in the coming months as Berlusconi's third government establishes itself. Italy's political class, corrupt and untouchable, will become further remote from the citizens, creating increased support for the "anti-politics" represented by the comic blogger Beppe Grillo and others. Many Italians - above all a vocal and still sizeable left now without parliamentary representation - will now feel politically alienated, at a moment of deepening social and economic tension. Berlusconi has forecast "tough times", but he will be under pressure to deliver quickly - which will increase the temptation that incendiary rhetoric (such as implying that immigrants constituted an "army of evil") will be turned into action. The coming period may echo some of the worst aspects of the 1970s - when the state was in the hands of dark forces and the country was seriously polarised and disfigured by terrorism.

In foreign affairs, the relationship between Berlusconi and his old friend Vladimir Putin - now Russian prime minister, and the first to congratulate Il cavaliere on his victory - will be worth watching; they are already meeting in Sardinia on 17-18 April. They have much in common: a concern with concentrated power (Berlusconi never accepted his defeat in the 2006 election, and he can be expected to reach for the presidency of the Italian republic at some stage); a dependency on close political allies with mafia connections; a contempt for constitutional structures; and a willingness to demonise and undermine their opponents.

Walter Veltroni continues to talk of a "new season" in Italian politics. The phrase is as vacuous as the centre-left dawn he expected proved false. Italy instead is moving into the political night. Silvio Berlusconi's election is bad enough; but worse is to come.

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