Italy’s important election
“I’ll be back” has been Silvio Berlusconi’s frequent slogan since he first departed from the political field two decades ago. His first government, in 1994, lasted a mere year. It ended in semi-farce when his main ally, the Northern League, pulled out. Prosecutors announced an investigation into alleged corruption while he hosted a G8 meeting in Naples. But he was back in 2001 through 2006, when he lost by a whisker to the left; then back again in 2008, when a stumbling left government lost its majority.
His resignation in 2011 was supposed – even by him – to be the final word. Instead, by the middle of last year, halfway through the austere term of the technocrat Mario Monti, he sniffed the air of a return from the political grave (or, according to his many detractors, recalled that being prime minister with the immunity of parliament was handy for one still facing criminal charges). Thus he inserted himself back into the leadership of the party he created, the People of Freedom. At 76, Berlusconi was on the stump once more. With bravura, he has promised to pay people back – in cash -- for the property taxes they have paid since his departure, he won a shouting match with two left-wing journalists on their own TV show and he grabbed every minute of broadcast space that he could. One could admire his tenacity if he had not been such a disaster — economically, politically and morally — for his country.
Berlusconi has a chance of winning this weekend’s elections. Roberto D’Alimonte, one of Italy’s leading political scientists, argues that the People of Freedom are a mere five points behind the left coalition’s 31 percent poll score. Berlusconi’s tally may be too low if some people are ashamed to tell pollsters they will vote for him. He’s a master of the late surge (as in 2006, where he narrowly snatched victory after trailing badly).
Still, the left coalition is poised to win the election, as D’Alimonte concludes. Its leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, is a man of some decency, it seems, and no ideological leftist – if a former communist. As minister of economic development in the last leftist government, he was the man in charge of market liberalization and competition, and he encouraged a significant amount of both. His victory, though, is likely to be partial. He will need at least one ally, and that ally is likely to be the Civic Choice Party, formed a few months ago by Monti.
Monti, though he is seen as a savior in governing circles abroad, is much less popular in the country that has had to suffer his austerity. He made up his party hastily, with two one-time supporters of Berlusconi – the Christian Democrat Pier Ferdinando Casini and the former leader of the National Alliance, Gianfranco Fini – neither of whom had high popularity ratings. Still, the 12 percent-15 percent Monti has been showing (polls are now banned until Sunday’s election) could translate into 30-40 seats. An alliance could give the left a majority. A Bersani-Monti coalition is now being touted in European chanceries, treasuries and editorials as the best outcome, given that a Monti victory seems impossible. There is fervent hope that he would be given wide latitude and strong political support for reforms that could reach much further.
A Bersani-Monti cabinet would have a leader of a party whose largest supporter is one of the most powerful union movements in the West, and the leading liberally inclined economist in Italy. Monti would be yoked together in a cabinet with a prime minister of the left, who has a partner in his left coalition in Nichi Vendola — governor of the Puglia region and leader of the small Left, Ecology and Liberty party. It is a Marxist-inspired group that would seek to pull the prime minister further left. Vendola has been at pains to stress that he and his party will not be, as he put it in a recent interview , “a drawing room lap dog” of a left administration.
There are still heavier guns behind Bersani’s fusillade. The Italian General Confederation of Labor is the largest and most militant part of the trade union movement. It was the toughest barrier to Monti’s attempts to radically reform the labor market. Its engineering division has held out, long after other unions settled, against new working practices at Fiat plants. Susanna Camusso, its leader, has been a trade union official all her adult life, conscious of the CGIL’s tradition and responsibility to her members. Long communist-led, the union seeks the best possible deals under capitalism but retains a vision of a better, fairer, socialist world — a vision that has wide resonance within Bersani’s Democratic Party. The Italian left can be pragmatic, but it will see Bersani’s role as one of shifting the country firmly to the left.
This is not Monti’s vision. As a liberal economist, he believes in markets, in lower state spending, in private rather than state-owned corporations, and in a freer labor regime. He doesn’t think globalization can be kept at bay; society and economy must adapt to it. As one of Europe’s most prominent economists, he knows too well that Italian labor costs have remained relatively high while those of its neighbors are falling, and that its vast public debt – 130 percent of GDP – must come down. That means wage cuts, public spending cuts, and lower and later pensions – some of which he has managed to bring in, but much of which he hasn’t.
The Italian working class would bear much of the brunt of such reforms. Monti and his colleagues in the technical government of the past year believed there was no other way, and that ultimately the reforms would lead to a fairer, more dynamic society. Does Bersani? And even if he did believe in Monti’s vision, could he deliver it?
Monti said in a recent interview that his government “had taken away the veil which covered reality.” It had shown Italians the grim truth about their country that Berlusconi had covered with false optimism and reassurance. But most voters cannot bear too much reality.
If the most likely winner prevails, a struggle fundamental to our age will continue — one that pits the aspirations of the left against the unveiled realities of globalization. If these two forces come to govern the euro zone’s third-largest economy, the outcome of the struggle will be global in its impact.
PHOTO: Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (R) addresses a news conference with Italian Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti at the end of the G20 Summit in Cannes November 4, 2011. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez