Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1997

Expect a bumpy ride after Italian election

This article is over 17 years, 11 months old
Italian voters have dumped Silvio Berlusconi, but the new government is highly unstable. Tom Behan looks at the key issues facing the left
Issue 1997
Romano Prodi
Romano Prodi

The Italian general election result revealed one basic truth about parliamentary politics – the people who generally run society are not elected.

Over the coming month there will be a complicated institutional dance, in which the new head of state will first be chosen by the elected representatives. After that a government will be formed.

In the meantime, big companies will continue with their economic policies, and unelected bureaucrats will carry on running government and the public sector.

But the election result does matter.

The good news is that Silvio Berlusconi was defeated. As Italy’s richest man he is accustomed to threatening or sacking employees – so persuading people to vote for him is something he finds very difficult.

And with the prospect of losing and being put on trial for corruption again, Berlusconi went a bit off the rails towards the end, calling all who opposed him “communists” or “dickheads”.

Yet the populist nature of his hate campaign against the left nearly paid off.

His party, Forza Italia, got by far the largest number of votes for a single party.

Overall the centre right coalition campaigned on the “politics of fear” – of immigrants, terrorists, communists, asylum seekers, globalisation – and nearly won.

The closeness of the result will present election victor Romano Prodi with lots of problems. A former president of the European Union (EU), he is the figurehead of the centre left coalition and doesn’t even have a party of his own to back him up.

The tradition of Italian parliamentary politics is such that many of the smaller of the eight parties in the coalition will threaten to bring down the government if they don’t get their way.

It is also significant that Berlusconi lost because big business wanted him to lose. A month before polling day the main ruling class newspapers all said they would be calling on their readers to vote for the centre left.

This is because the Italian economy is in recession, as it has been for much of the last five years under Berlusconi.


A Bank of Italy report published last month revealed the depth of the problem – government debt is very high, therefore the EU is likely to demand “further interventions on a significant scale”.

In plain English, that means public sector cuts in order to stay within the neo-liberal parameters of the EU’s Maastricht Treaty.

Already half of young people who find a full time job are forced to take a fixed term contract.

Ruling class demands are growing for wage curbs. Although pay remains low, unit labour costs have risen by 20 percent compared to Germany’s since 1999.

Italian bosses expect Prodi to deliver for them, partly because of what he did as prime minister ten years ago.

In his first budget, in 1996, Prodi introduced a £5 billion “tax for Europe”, alongside another £25 billion of “savings” in the public sector.

All told, tax increases on an average family budget were about £1,000 a year.

Other early decisions also included moves to create financial autonomy for schools and universities, as well as proposals for an increased “flexibility” of the labour force.

In 1997 Italian Telecom was privatised, as well as the state’s holding in the hydrocarbon conglomerate ENI.

The impact of globalisation, high taxes, low wages and job insecurity all began under the Prodi government.

The left is fully aware of this, and one of the key battlegrounds will be reversing the spread of temporary contracts, which now involve 4.5 million workers.

Yet the demand to abolish the law allowing job insecurity – a campaign the left has always supported – was quietly dropped last month at the conference of the largest trade union federation, the CGIL.

The significance of this is that the CGIL is closely linked to the largest “soft left” party, the DS – roughly equivalent to the Labour Party.

Another worrying sign occurred on the eve of the worldwide demonstrations against the occupation of Iraq on 18 March.

Claiming that the demonstration would be violent, the DS suddenly withdrew its support.

After that the CGIL ordered its local branches to cancel dozens of coaches that were booked.

It’s very hard to predict exactly what Prodi will do, but it is inevitable that his government will be unstable. This may lead to more pressure for a “grand coalition”, like the one in Germany.

Berlusconi proposed this immediately after the election in a bid to hold on to power, but Prodi rejected the idea. Yet if Prodi pushes hard neo-liberal policies, and encounters mass opposition, the idea of a grand coalition could easily become attractive to the soft left.

All of this places a lot of responsibility on parties further to the left, which did well in the elections. Rifondazione Comunista, the Greens and the Party of Italian Communists all increased their votes. Together they won 10 percent of all votes.


All three of these parties scored their highest votes in the Susa valley near Turin, where last autumn a militant environmental movement defeated an attempt to build a high speed train line through the valley.

As ever, it is radical action in the streets that leads people to radical voting.

Rifondazione now has 41 seats in the lower house. But it is in a government which will certainly hope to push through neo-liberal measures.

That means hard choices.

Rifondazione is pledged to push for immediate withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, repeal of the law allowing job insecurity and to oppose attacks on workers’ living standards.

It is very likely the hard left will face the task of organising mass action against its “own” government.

Tom Behan’s book The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to or phone 020 7637 1848.


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