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‘Third Way’ ends in failure

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Issue 1748

‘Third Way’ ends in failure

RIGHT WING Thatcher-loving businessman Silvio Berlusconi swept to power in the Italian elections last weekend. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy) increased its share of the vote. It will now form a coalition government with two extreme right wing parties, the Northern League and the National Alliance.

Berlusconi is a multi-millionaire who controls a vast media empire. He wants to push through more privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts for businesses. He also wants to force workers to move around the country to find jobs, and to “modernise” the public sector. But while Berlusconi’s victory is undoubtedly a blow, Italian workers have already shown they can stand up to him and beat him.

It is not the first time Berlusconi has been prime minister. His last government in 1994 provoked a huge wave of workers’ struggle that saw him resign after only nine months in office. And there are signs that the militancy of Italian workers which brought Berlusconi down then has not gone away.

Around 100,000 people demonstrated in Milan in April this year to commemorate liberation from the fascist government during the Second World War. There were 200 May Day protests across Italy this year, and at a concert in Rome 800,000 people gathered to hear popular left wing bands. Even before the election trade union leaders threatened a “hot summer” if Berlusconi’s attacks on job security and wages go through.

And only last week thousands of metal workers in Turin struck and 10,000 people marched in solidarity with a worker who suffered an industrial injury. Struggles like this will be needed to stop attacks from Italy’s new hard right government.

Euro worries

ONE REASON Berlusconi’s government is likely to be weak is that it made promises to get elected that conflict with the demands of European business. So he promised to spend more on public services. That is the real reason why right wing publications like the Economist European business magazine have attacked Berlusconi.

In doing so they have also pointed out his record of corruption and highlighted allegations that he is linked to the mafia. The Economist warned Italians not to elect Berlusconi, saying he was “unfit to lead Italy”.

He has been under investigation by Italian magistrates over numerous charges of corruption, including the bribery of judges, politicians and the financial police. He denounces these charges and claims he is linked to the Mafia as part of a “Communist plot”, and plans to pass laws which mean that he and his allies will no longer be investigated.

Allies on the right

BERLUSCONI’S COALITION allies have extreme right wing policies. The National Alliance (AN), whose leader is Gianfranco Fini, describes itself as post-fascist. Fini has tried to distance the AN from its fascist past and become more respectable in an attempt to enter government. But up until a year before the 1994 election Fini was leading parades of goose-stepping thugs.

The AN changed its name from the MSI in the early 1990s. The MSI was an outright fascist party. It openly stood in the tradition of the 1930s Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Despite his “respectability”, Fini described Mussolini as the “greatest statesman” of the last century just after the 1994 election.

Umberto Bossi leads the right wing populist Northern League. The league whips up hatred of people from the poorer south of the country. It has also led a huge witch-hunt against immigrants, blaming them for poverty, crime and unemployment.

And it has organised demonstrations, rallies and strikes against the building of mosques and immigration into Italy. Both parties also work closely with fascist groups on a local level.

Lesson of last time

BERLUSCONI LAST came to office in March 1994 after a political crisis led to the collapse of the old ruling parties. Berlusconi and his Forza Italia formed a coalition government with the Northern League and the National Alliance. They promised an end to corruption. Instead Berlusconi issued a decree that would have freed 2,000 politicians and businessmen held in jail for questioning on corruption charges. Only protests by tens of thousands of people then stopped the decree from becoming law.

Berclusconi’s cabinet proposed to slash public spending by 15 billion, and to take away the pension rights of millions of workers. Workers responded with a huge wave of strikes. In October 1994 over ten million workers struck and three million demonstrated during a one-day general strike.

The following month a trade union demonstration saw one and a half million people on the streets of Rome. The resistance produced splits in the governing coalition and soon Berlusconi was forced to resign only nine months after he had been elected.

Olive Tree withers

IT IS the failure of the “Third Way” left in government that has allowed Berlusconi and his allies to come back from the dead. The Olive Tree centre-left coalition came to power in 1996. Italians had huge hopes for change as it was the first time there had been a clearly left government since the Second World War.

The main coalition party was the PDS, the ex-Communists, who have become more and more like Britain’s New Labour. From the beginning the Olive Tree was committed to the same cuts and privatisations that Berlusconi had failed to force through.

It immediately pushed through an austerity budget which allowed Italy to qualify for the euro single currency. It cut pensions, scapegoated and attacked immigrants, and supported the 1999 NATO bombing of the Balkans. Workers’ wages have been held down since 1993. Local Olive Tree councils have pushed through cuts and the privatisation of public services.

Even the Olive Tree’s manifesto in the run-up to the election was largely the same as that of Berlusconi’s coalition. Both promised lower taxes, and more jobs, public works, and crackdowns on crime and immigration. “After Berlusconi fell last time his neo-liberal policies were adopted by the centre-left,” says a socialist from Salerno. “They got the blame for the failures. Rutelli, the centre-left leader, was saying that people would be getting more of the same, which gave Berlusconi the opportunity to say he was for change. It’s hardly surprising the centre-left lost.”

Giving Genoa a sharper edge

BEFORE THE election some commentators said that the hard left Communist Refoundation, which split away from the centre-left government in 1998, would split the left wing vote and allow the right into power. The PDS, the ex-Communists, only got 16.1 percent of votes in Sunday’s elections. It has moved sharply to the right over the last two decades in an effort to appear respectable and win more votes.

In 1976, before it had moved so far to the right, the PDS’s predecessor, the PCI, got 34.4 percent of votes. Communist Refoundation got 5 percent of the vote last weekend. “The night of the election Bertinotti, the leader of Communist Refoundation, appeared on national TV,” says a socialist from Salerno.

“He said, ‘The Olive Tree’s policies have led to the disillusionment of its base and there is a mood for change in civic society. People are against the way that the system is going. We have to build on that for the protests in Genoa against the G8 countries in July.’ “We can make the Genoa protest the first big opposition to Berlusconi.”

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