On the 9 and 10 April Italian voters will be called to the polls to judge the five years of Silvio Berlusconi’s government. On the face of it, they should have an easy task.
Economic growth in Italy has slowed so much that it is now close to zero, wages have fallen in real terms since 2001 and many young people are caught up in what is a highly “flexible” and precarious job market.
Moreover, Berlusconi has failed to deliver on any of his other promises, including tax cuts. The story of the Berlusconi government has been marked by scandal, open promotion of the man’s many, many businesses and worrying signs of state repression.
In July 2001 the government announced itself to the world, and with “post-fascist” minister Gianfranco Fini in the police control room, by brutally suppressing mass demonstrations in Genoa.
One man – Carlo Giuliani – was killed, thousands were beaten and 93 people were attacked and arrested as they slept in a school on the edge of town.
None of them had committed any crime. The events were hushed up and the police were later caught on film planting evidence in the school. Things did not improve.
Berlusconi forced through a series of “personal” laws which either increased his already absurdly powerful economic position or aided him in escaping trial and investigation.
Many of these laws were drawn up by Berlusconi’s own lawyers, who ran the parliamentary justice commission. Further legislation reinforced the illegal media monopoly of Berlusconi.
The final act of the government was to change the electoral law in its favour, bringing in a form of proportional representation which damages small parties by forcing them into alliances. It de facto excludes women and minorities by leaving candidate selection entirely in the hands of the political oligarchies.
Public standards have reached new lows, with politicians failing to resign despite convictions for the corruption of judges and links with the mafia.
Damage has also been done to Italy’s large immigrant community, who have had their lives made much worse by punitive laws and by the open xenophobia of Berlusconi and his allies.
Last month, a policeman was captured on film as he stamped, twice, on the bare chest of an immigrant. The reaction of the right was to express their solidarity, not with the beaten immigrant, but with the policeman in question.
An imam with refugee status in Italy was picked up by CIA agents on the streets of Milan and taken to Egypt where he was tortured. Nobody believed the claims of the Italian government that they were ignorant of the whole affair.
This barbarity has also been seen in the international sphere. Berlusconi has been George Bush’s biggest ally in Europe – after Blair. Italian troops remain in Iraq and an Italian minister sported a T-shirt carrying the infamous anti-Islam cartoons.
Berlusconi has also backed Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s murderous campaigns in Chechnya and managed to insult most Germans with one of his many gaffes, when he compared German MEP Martin Schultz to a Nazi concentration camp guard.
When Italian secret service agent Nicola Calipari was shot dead by US troops as he drove ex-hostage and Il Manifesto journalist Giuliana Sgrena to Baghdad airport, the government’s reaction was one of cringing subservience to the edicts of Bush and his cronies.
So it might appear that Berlusconi has no chance of winning. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The polls predict a centre left victory.
But there is a month to go and neither the media power of Berlusconi, nor his hold on many Italians, should be underestimated.
He has built a wide coalition, including, disgracefully, a number of neo-fascists and holocaust deniers – such as Roberto Fiore, a powerful fascist well known to British activists during his 11 years on the run in London in the 1980s.
The new electoral law will limit the damage of any defeat and there are still a number of undecided voters. Moreover, the left appears to be doing its best to help its opponents.
The centre left manifesto consists of 270 pages of pure waffle, with no clear commitment even to overturn many of the anti-union and anti-immigrant laws passed since 2001 – nor to divest Berlusconi of his undemocratic media empire.
All internal dissent in the left has been squashed in the hope of victory. The great protests and new movements which marked the middle period of Berlusconi’s “regime” have been demobilised as election date gets closer.
The Italian election is important for all of us. We should mobilise for a Berlusconi defeat. Remember, Italian residents abroad can also vote for the first time for their own candidates. If Silvio B does lose, the pressure needs to be kept on any new government to take measures to defend democracy in Italy and to prevent any future election of such a reactionary and racist government.
John Foot’s new book Calcio: A History of Italian Football is released on 3 April