Italian Challenge


May 8, 2007 9:55 | by Nick Wright

on attempts in Italy to keep trade unions and left-wing parties off the country's political scene.

What could be a seismic shift in Italian politics has started following the decision of the two leading parties in the ruling l'Unione coalition to form a new, "reformist" party.

Italian Communist (PdCI) leader Oliviero Diliberto responded by calling for a confederation of the country's long-fractured left at the party's congress in Rimini.

The Democrats of the Left (DS) and the smaller centrist Margharita party agreed a merger last week.

The new party will complete a key stage in centrist Prime Minister Romano Prodi's plan to reconfigure Italian politics around a pro-EU consensus. The aim is to allow the centre to compete with the right on terms that limits the influence of the left and the working-class movement.

It shares some similarities with the attempt by right-wing Socialist Party figures in France to make common cause with Francois Bayrou or the project to forge a semi-permanent Lib Dem coalition with Labour.

L'Unione narrowly won elections last year, defeating Tony Blair's holiday host and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, whose governing coalition had included right-wing Christian democrats, corrupt social democrats, the chauvinist Northern League and the fascist National Alliance.

Diliberto, whose party is a minority partner in the ruling coalition, said that the Italian bosses' organisation Confinindustria would like the left to be shut out of government so that it can proceed with restructuring the labour and welfare market in a laissez-faire way without opposition.

He told the congress that "there is no salvation for the lower classes and for democracy outside the centre-left alliance."

He warned that the right-wing was "divided and lacerated ... but still strong" and only lost the election by a hair's breadth, noting that Berlusconi still had wide approval.

Diliberto reminded delegates that Italian society has "authoritarian driving forces that appear when the workers' and left movements are at their strongest."

Delegates rose to their feet in solidarity with workers in a co-operative that was bombed by the mafia just as the congress assembled.

"Obscure conspiracies traverse Italy," said Diliberto. "It is an country of mystery and diversions, of international interference and the misuse of the government apparatus."

The Party of Italian Communists delayed its congress until after the decision by Margharita and DS to merge so that it could respond quickly to the new situation.

'The new party is a key stage in Romano Prodi's plan to reconfigure Italian politics around a pro-EU consensus.'

A substantial element of the DS opposed the merger and a group of 23 deputies and 11 senators from DS are to form a new parliamentary group and co-ordinate their work with both the left-wing Rifondazione Comunista and the PdCI/Green coalition.

This, with the Italian Communists' 16 seats and Rifondazione's 41, gives the left something of a presence in the 630-seat chamber of deputies.

Diliberto warned: "The birth of this new Democratic Party would see an even bigger section of the Italian left depart from the political and institutional representation of labour and the workers."

He feared that the relationship with the main trade union federation CGIL will be lost, increasing the risk of its isolation.

Diliberto even had warm words for Fausto Bertinotti, the former leader of Rifondazione who now chairs the chamber of deputies.

Bertinotti is a brilliant, often divisive and contradictory figure, a socialist with a background in the metal workers' union.

PdCI and Rifondazione Comunista share a common history. Rifondazione was created in 1991 after a split in the Italian Communist Party which gave birth to the DS as well. The refounded party also attracted some left-wing socialists, people from social and feminists movements plus a bewildering array of Trotskyists.

Rifondazione broke away over a confidence motion in the chamber over Italian participation in the NATO attack on Yugolsavia. A majority of communist deputies and senators backed the centre-left government, although they disagreed with the war, while a majority of party activists followed Bertinotti into opposition. The government fell and Berlusconi came to office.

PdCI was formed as a result of this split and has attracted a lot of traditional communist support. The party lays claim to the communist tradition in Italy and stresses its political continuity with the original Communist Party of Italy.

In an ironic turn of events, Rifondazione itself is now riven by internal disputes over the new centre-left government's backing for troops in Afghanistan.

Both PdCI and Rifondazione have expelled people from their parliamentary groups for failing to back the government. Some of Bertinotti's Trostkyist former allies have left the party and many of those remaining want to bring down the government.

Referring to the three parties that shared the same historical background - the DS, the Italian Communists and Rifondazione - Diliberto said that supporters "are disillusioned by the splits, lacerations, fighting and grudges nursed - like a curse - by the Italian left."

The PdCI proposal for a confederation of the left, described by Diliberto as "unity in diversity," was well received.

The Italian Communists want to place the exploitation of workers in all its forms at the centre of the political agenda.

The party is making progress. Prodi told delegates that their party was not on the margins of politics and praised the competence of the minister that they had nominated.

Alone among the parties of the left, it is growing. There has been a 20 per cent increase in members over the past year, with many young communists prominent at the congress.

Meanwhile, all is not plain sailing for the fledgling Partito Democratico. Margherita, led by Francesco Rutelli, and the DS, led by Piero Fassino, should be organisationally united by next spring to prepare for the 2009 European elections.

But, with higher education minister Fabio Mussi leading one current in co-operation with the communists, problems have broken out at the other end of the disintigrating Democratic Party spectrum.

DS is part of the Party of European Socialists that includes the British Labour Party. But Rutelli told the Margherita conference that it would be "impossible" for the Democratic Party to join. And, to make matters more uncertain, Prodi has said that he will not be a candidate for the leadership of the new party.

Running together in the last elections, the two parties won 31 per cent of the vote, but, running separately for the senate, it dropped to 17.5 per cent for DS and 10.7 per cent for Margharita. This was seen a compelling reason for the merger, but the latest opinion poll gives only 23 per cent of the people in favour of the new formation.

The coming months pose both threats and offer opportunities to Italy's left.

Nick Wright writes frequently on international affairs for the Morning Star, where this article first appeared.