By Cath Fletcher
Italian news has been dominated proposals from Berlusconi’s coalition, the Casa delle Libertà (CdL), to change electoral system. Fearful that they may lose the 2006 election, they have designed a proportional system that gives them all the advantages and the opposition all the disadvantages.
Under these new plans, parties have to get a minimum of 4% of the votes to be allocated seats — and as there are more small parties on the left than the right this helps the CdL. There is also a “bonus” for the biggest coalition, which will be allocated extra seats in parliament to give it a working majority should it not get one democratically!
The forthcoming election was the subject of a debate at Bologna’s Festa di Liberazione (Liberation Festival), organised by Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation), which I recently attended. The Festa came before the election reforms so that wasn’t debated. Rifondazione support proportional representation but I doubt they will be supporting these reforms.
Rifondazione have an impressive line up for their debate. There’s the vice-president of the Senate and ex-Employment Minister Cesare Salvi, who’s on the left of the Left Democrats (DS); Pino Sgobio, the leader of the Partito dei Comunisti Italiani (PdCI) in the Camera (lower house of parliament); Paolo Cento of the Greens’ national secretariat, and Claudio Grassi, from the national leadership of Rifondazione.
The DS, PdCI and Rifondazione were all once upon a time part of the Italian Communist Party. The DS are now a centre-left party, backing Romano Prodi for President. The PdCI split with Rifondazione in the late 90s, and stayed in government when Rifondazione decided to leave the coalition led by Romano Prodi.
Now, though, they’re more or less friends together in the new left coalition L’Unione — the Union. This isn’t “union” as in trade union, (the Italian for trade union is “sindacato”). It’s more “union” as in Unity and to some, I suspect, has a touch of One Nation about it. Rifondazione’s decision to join the coalition — and to participate in government if the left wins — isn’t without controversy.
My new flatmate Kerstin came with me to the festa. Kerstin’s from east Germany and is a bit taken aback by all the flags with the hammer and sickle and the word “Communist” everywhere at the festa. Even the wine has been renamed “falce” for white (i.e. sickle) and “martello” (hammer) for red, but notwithstanding the tinge of Stalinism, it’s really quite drinkable. I explain to Kerstin that Rifondazione doesn’t support a return to Soviet-style rule, but I can see her point about the imagery.
On the way in there’s a stall getting people to register for the primary elections on 16 October. The Rifondazione leader Fausto Bertinotti is standing against Romano Prodi, the ex-European Commission president and former prime minister, for the leadership of the Union.
Prodi’s the favourite — already described in the press as “il leader” — but if Bertinotti does well Rifondazione should have more clout in the negotiations over the manifesto that follow. I think Rifondazione’s doing the right thing by participating in the primaries — I’m less convinced by what seems to be a bit of a blank-cheque agreement to join the government before a decision’s been made on what’s in the manifesto. But maybe — and I don’t know the details — the one wouldn’t be possible without the other.
A commentator in La Repubblica (Italy’s equivalent of the Guardian) who’s clearly no friend of the left reckons Prodi’s made a big mistake by agreeing to primaries at all, and that they can only do him damage.
Most of the festa is given over to stalls selling food and drink. There’s a bookshop, but it’s only slightly left-leaning, with lots of best-sellers, not to mention a Catholic polemic against the Da Vinci Code which doesn’t seem to me the most obvious thing to sell at a communist event. Later on, aging rocker Ricky Gianco and his band will be treating the crowd to a rendition of numbers “from the 60s to today”.
There aren’t very many young people at the festa at all, and I wonder if, like much of the British left, Rifondazione has some trouble appealing to the under-30s (or indeed the under-50s). Perhaps the fact that it’s Friday night has something to do with it.
The debate’s due to start at 9pm, but at 8.55 there are about ten people in the marquee, and there’s no sign of the speakers. Outside, someone is selling a ‘Marxist monthly’ called – surprise – Falce Martello/Sickle and Hammer. Have I seen it before? he asks. I say no, that I’m from England. Ah, he says cheerily, we have a group in England: Socialist Appeal. I think he can tell from my expression that I’ve never been overly impressed by his English comrades. I explain politely that I’m in a different Marxist group.
Eventually at twenty past someone turns up with the PA system, and when the meeting kicks off at about 9.30 there are over a hundred people in the audience. The local TV news has sent a camera crew.
The first speaker is Senator Cesare Salvi, from the DS. Salvi says the most important thing is to kick out Berlusconi. But the left can’t rely on in-fighting amongst the right-wing coalition, it has to have something to say about the concrete problems facing voters. The Union has to convince voters who believed in Berlusconi to switch. The images of New Orleans, Salvi said, showed the failures of the US neo-liberalism, as did its poverty, lack of social security and huge prison population. He criticised the “flexible” labour market. But, he said, the left needs “wisdom” if it is to win next year. For all the playing to the audience, his message was: “don’t rock the boat”.
For the PCI, Pino Sgobio said that yes, we need to kick out Berlusconi, but the left should have a programme for real change and a social and economic policy for the weakest in society. He described the current government as the worst right-wing government in Europe, a dangerous right wing, attacking democracy. But, he said, the left would not succeed if it fought among itself. He pointed to the dangers of the “grand centre” and said that a strong left was needed to stop it.
The “grand centre”, I should explain, is a project currently in vogue among some reformist politicians in Italy. They want to create a centre coalition to exclude the parties of the far left and far right. There’s been a rather bizarre debate running in the press over the summer about the relative merits of the “grand centre” and “bipolarity”, with supporters of the latter saying that at least it gives the voters a choice of government. There’s an ongoing argument, too, about the merits of returning to a more proportional electoral system – something that Rifondazione, rightly, supports. A few years ago, in an attempt to create more stable government after decades of collapsing coalitions, the electoral system was changed and now only 25% of the parliamentary seats are elected by PR.
The third speaker was Paolo Cento, for the Greens. He stressed that victory against the right wasn’t guaranteed. The Greens see themselves very much as part of the “alternative left”, and want a representative of “the movements” to stand in the primaries. The existing parties, Cento said, can’t change the way politics is here. He emphasised the Greens’ commitment to pulling Italian troops out of Iraq and praised the “great explosion of pacifism” (an odd way of putting it, I thought) from what had initially been a minority position.
The issue of finding an alternative primary candidate from the ‘social movements’ is something I’ve seen in the press over the last couple of weeks. There’s clearly some discomfort with Bertinotti’s candidature among some of the people around the social forums, for example. But despite considerable trawling they haven’t found anyone convincing to stand, and it must be doubtful whether they will now.
The final speaker was Claudio Grassi, of Rifondazione Comunista. He said that the left mustn’t take its eyes off the ball, that Berlusconi could yet pull things together and win next year. The centre, he said, is looking for an alternative to Berlusconi, but not for alternative policies, and those people in Confindustria (the Italian CBI) who are backing Prodi don’t want a Union government with a strong left. The question is will those people — Confindustria and so on — be able to dominate things if the left coalition wins. If they do it will be a disaster: on the Blair model.
Grassi called for a return to a proportional system for the elections. And unlike any of the other speakers he was prepared to criticise Prodi, pointing out that in government Prodi had been responsible for privatisations. He emphasised the importance of stopping insecurity at work, and stressed his opposition to the war. The Union, he said, had to beat Berlusconi. But in government it must not repeat the mistakes of the centre-left in the 90s, or follow the ‘modello Blair’.
The parallel drawn by Rifondazione Comunista between the situation in Italy now and that in Britain ten years ago is really quite striking. In both cases you have a discredited right-wing government losing public support, and a section of the bourgeoisie backing a ‘moderate’ ‘centre-left’ leader as an acceptable alternative manager for capitalism. There are differences – while there is a sense that the left has to stick together to kick out Berlusconi there isn’t quite the same “don’t rock the boat” timidity that we saw in Britain pre-1997. And a big difference is the state of the left and the state of the unions — far from perfect but still much stronger and much healthier here than in mid-90s Britain.