Back in business

Published : May 23, 2008 00:00 IST

Silvio Berlusconi at a rally in Turin, on March 2. The colourful, gaffe-prone and aging billionaire won a decisive victory on April 14.-ALBERTO RAMELLA/AP

Silvio Berlusconi at a rally in Turin, on March 2. The colourful, gaffe-prone and aging billionaire won a decisive victory on April 14.-ALBERTO RAMELLA/AP

Silvio Berlusconi is at the helm again, this time with a huge margin of victory and a formidable alliance of right-wing parties.

THE return of the right-wing Italian politician and media tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi, to power was predicted by pollsters ever since the collapse of the Centre-Left coalition led by Prime Minister Romano Prodi in March. But no pollster or analyst predicted the huge margin of victory that the Berlusconi-led coalition achieved.

After a long time, the winning coalition will have a comfortable majority in the lower and upper houses of parliament. This time, the Centre-Right government in all likelihood will serve out its entire five-year term in office.

The Centre-Left coalition paid a huge political price for its failures. The coalition, which managed to survive in office for 23 months on a wafer-thin majority in both the houses, failed dismally to institute the political and economic reforms that were promised in its 2006 election manifesto. It was not even able to dismantle the media monopoly enjoyed by Berlusconi. Most of the countrys private broadcasting is controlled by Berlusconis companies. Now as Prime Minister, Berlusconi will once again make the state broadcasters fall in line.

The Prodi governments term in office was marked by constant bickering, with the smaller parties in the coalition constantly rocking the boat. It was the revolt of a small splinter group of the Christian Democratic Party that finally led to the collapse of the government. And, in the final analysis, there was nothing substantial to differentiate the Centre-Left from the Berlusconi-led alliance.

The Prodi government continued with the special relationship with the United States. It allowed the expansion of the American military base in Vincenza and did not keep its promise to withdraw Italian troops from Afghanistan. It even despatched Italian peacekeepers to Lebanon at the prodding of the U.S. and drastically increased the countrys military spending.

The Centre-Left government privatised state-owned companies and abandoned the traditional pension system. Bad governance in the eyes of ordinary Italians was exemplified by the garbage crisis in Naples and other towns. The comedian, Bebbe Grillo, who had asked the public to abstain from the vote, described the two major opposing political blocs as suspected twin brothers and altar boys at the same celebration of mass.

The artist, who drew big crowds during the election campaign, said that both sides were conducting a phoney war against each other. Voter turnout dropped from 83 per cent in 2006 to 80 per cent this time. The lower turnout, according to analysts, helped the Berlusconi-led coalition sweep the polls.

Berlusconi, having emerged unscathed from a slew of corruption cases, had stitched together a formidable alliance of right-wing parties, led by the People of Freedom (PdL) party. It was formed by the merger of Berlusconis Forza Italia and the post-Fascist Alleanza Nacional led by Gianfranco Fini. The new party then formed an alliance with the anti-immigrant and xenophobic Northern League (Lega Nord). Berlusconi was well prepared to face the electorate.

The Centre-Left governments handling of the economy alienated a sizable section of the middle class. The economy is expected to grow only by 0.3 per cent this year, the lowest growth rate in the European Union (E.U.). Italy is being labelled by the Western media as the sick man of Europe.

The Centre-Left had to fight the electoral battle under the leadership of a relatively untested politician. After Prodi announced his retirement from politics, Walter Veltroni, the Mayor of Rome, took over the leadership. Veltroni started his political career with the Communist Party of Italy (PCI). The PCI was among the first communist parties of Europe to jettison Marxist ideology and embrace social democracy.

The PCI was renamed the Party of the Democratic Left (PDS) in 1991. Veltroni also went along with the mainstream and rose rapidly in the hierarchy of the new party. In 2007, the PDS merged with the Church-supported Margherita Party. The new party, with Veltroni as its head, was named the Democratic Party. It is patterned after the Democratic Party in the U.S.

Veltroni as the Mayor of Rome built a reputation for himself as a dynamic administrator. While campaigning, he projected himself as the Italian version of Barack Obama. He even adopted Obamas slogan Si puo fare (Yes we can).

Veltroni refused to form a broad-based coalition, which would have included the other Left parties. This was seen as a signal to the Italian elite as well as the business community that the Democratic Party was willing to do business with Berlusconi. Veltroni was accused by some in his own party of being soft on Berlusconi. There was talk about a secret understanding between the two of forming a grand alliance in case the elections once again produced a hung upper house.

The Left parties led by the Refoundation Communists, along with the Greens and the Party of Italian Communists (PdCI), another breakaway faction of the Communist Party, formed a rainbow alliance to fight the elections. The Refoundation, which had broken away from the PDS to uphold the banner of socialism, had also lost its credibility after it joined the previous Centre-Left government and did nothing when Prodi instituted anti-working class policies.

The Refoundation leader, Fausto Bertinotti, was appointed President of the Chamber of Deputies (lower house) by Prodi. This is the third most important post in the Italian government. Other smaller left-wing parties, such as the Communist Workers Party and the Critical Left (Sinistra Critica), put up their own candidates.

Berlusconi, on his part, focussed on Veltronis communist past. Many Italian voters and sections of the powerful Catholic Church still view communists with a great deal of suspicion. Berlusconi said that a vote for Veltroni is a vote for communism.

Among the candidates for election supported by Berlusconi were avowed fascists such as the businessperson Giuseppe Ciarrapico and Alexandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of the Fascist dictator. Both of them belong to the far-Right party, La Destra.

On the campaign trail, Berlusconis reputation for political gaffes reached new heights. He told one unemployed girl that she should dress better so that she would be able to attract rich suitors such as his children. On another occasion, he said, another reason to invest in Italy is that we have beautiful secretaries superb girls. He had said during the Cultural Revolution in China that they did not eat babies for breakfast. Actually they boiled them alive for lunch and used them as fertilizers for the fields.

The election results validated Berlusconis confidence. It was a remarkable comeback for the man who was on the verge of bankruptcy and being jailed on myriad corruption charges 17 years ago. His critics say that the very reason for his entering politics was to escape jail and stave off bankruptcy. The laws were changed and judges pressured during the three terms when Berlusconi was in office.

The charges of tax evasion, bribery, links with the mafia and other skulduggery that were brought against Berlusconi were dismissed by the courts, mostly on the grounds that the time limit for prosecution had exceeded. Meanwhile, his business empire once again flourished. He is a multi-billionaire today and is counted among Europes wealthiest.

The saddest outcome of the elections from the progressive viewpoint is the debacle of the Left. The rainbow Left could only win 1.1 million votes compared with the four million it bagged in the 2006 elections. In less than two years, the Left has lost two-thirds of its popular support base.

Many traditional Left voters preferred to stay at home. Forty per cent of the Left votes went to the Democrats. The alliance of the Communist Workers Party and the Critical Left won 400,000 votes, one third of the votes garnered by the rainbow alliance.

For the first time since the end of Fascism, the Italian legislature will be without genuine communist representation. Leonardo Masella, a Refoundation leader who was opposed to the compromises his party had made while in government, said that many Refoundation rank and file had made it clear that they wanted to punish the leadership of the Refoundation Communist and its leading candidate Fausto Bertinotti, who they feel betrayed them. After the election results were announced, Bertinotti resigned from the leadership of the party.

The PCI had played a key role in the politics of 20th century Italy. It valiantly fought against fascism and German occupation. It was only the machinations of the West with the active connivance of the Vatican that prevented the PCI, led by the legendary Palmiro Togliatti, from coming to power at the centre in the late 1940s and in the 1950s.

Since the 1970s, the party started flirting with Euro communism and later on embraced social democracy. Efforts are now under way to form a new communist party modelled after the original PCI. An appeal signed by more than 100 leading intellectuals called for the reconstruction of a strong and unified communist party corresponding to the demands of the times.

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