Italy's purple populism

Submitted by Matthew on 18 March, 2010 - 3:13 Author: Cath Fletcher

The latest protests against Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi follow a trend for colour-branded demonstrating. It was orange in Ukraine, and here it’s purple.

The “purple people” — il popolo viola — have a single demand, for Berlusconi’s resignation. Their demonstrations might look good, but they’re politically vapid. Against Berlusconi — fine. But in favour of what?

The “purple” campaign kicked off back in December with a “No Berlusconi Day” attracting tens of thousands onto the streets of Rome. This time the largest union, CGIL, joined in the protest, announcing a four-hour general strike to coincide with the demonstration (albeit on a Saturday). The union’s slogan called for work and citizenship, and opposed tax evasion (Lavoro, Fisco e Cittadinanza). It was a minimal positive element in the demonstration. But it also shows up the problems facing the Italian left.

These latest protests have a backstory you couldn’t make up. Back in the autumn, the governor of the Lazio region, Piero Marrazzo, member of the new US-style Democratic Party, resigned after a sex-and-drugs scandal. He had won with a slim majority in 2005 (50.7% to 47.4%) and Berlusconi’s party, the Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Liberty), thought they’d be in with a chance of winning the regional elections, due at the end of March. But they didn’t get their nomination papers in on time. The obvious solution was for the PdL to pass a law allowing themselves to stand, which they duly did, only for it to be ruled unconstitutional, giving Berlusconi yet another opportunity to paint himself the victim of “communist magistrates”.

Berlusconi’s persistent attempts to legislate himself out of trouble, whether in relation to his own court cases or his party’s incompetence, combined with a backdrop of unemployment, factory closures and crisis, should be a gift for the left. But the fall-out from the last Prodi government, and the subsequent splits and re-alignments, has left a confused and fragmented left, and the “leadership” of the campaign against Berlusconi with an apparently amorphous group of Facebook activists.

I say “apparently amorphous” because, just as some social forums a decade or so ago in practice relied heavily on the organisational efforts of Rifondazione Comunista supporters, at least some of the “purple people” are involved in one or other political party, notably Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (the fusion of the Bertinotti tendency in Rifondazione with the part of the Left Democrats that rejected joining the Democratic Party).

SEL has recently enjoyed considerable success on the left, defeating efforts by the Democratic Party to push their incumbent governor in Puglia, Nichi Vendola, to stand down in favour of a candidate more acceptable to the centre party. Vendola demanded a primary and won convincingly with over two-thirds of the vote. Although there is much to criticise in Vendola’s record, he is nonetheless proof that standing on a platform of job creation and the right to decent housing does (funnily enough) appeal to voters. “Canvass for Vendola” buses are being organised from across Italy. The small liberal anti-corruption party Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values), led by former “Clean Hands” magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, has also been quick to jump on the purple bandwagon.

Yet there remains a real problem of democracy with the new anti-Berlusconi campaigns. You cannot join the purple people, although you can become their fan on Facebook.

They (whoever they are) solicit your suggestions for building a new sort of Italian politics — but with no indication of how they might decide which ones to run with. They explicitly rule out the creation of a new party, but if their movement is really to be about more than just bashing Berlusconi, it is hard to see what will be their vehicle for achieving it.

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