Four things we should know about the Italian elections

A sort of Italian Danny Boyle.
Beppe Grillo, a sort of Italian Frankie Boyle.

Italy votes next Sunday 24th    and Monday 25th February in a general election after just over a year of the so-called technocratic Monti government that had been supported by all the mainstream parties until Berlusconi pulled the rug from under it late last year by withdrawing PdL (People of Liberty party) support. What are the key things we have learnt so far from these elections?  Dave Kellaway reports

  1. Beppe Grillo and his 5 star Movement has arrived on the national political scene.

The other night 30,000 people packed the Piazza Duomo in Milan shouting in chorus ‘ mandatili tutti a casa’  – sack them all (politicians) as Italy’s new anti-political political star, Beppe Grillo harangued them. The great man of the left and cultural icon, Dario Fo, made a guest appearance on stage for Grillo and he is picking up other personalities’ support such as singer and TV star, Celentano.  He is currently engaged in what he calls the Tsunami tour. Online videos from other squares around the country show that the Milan meeting is not a one-off.

The last publicly allowed opinion polls put his vote at around 14%, enough to put his movement into third place and have over 60 members of parliament. However who knows whether what he calls ‘the wave’ will get stronger in the last week or so of the campaign. He is certainly making all the running and is getting good coverage in the media. Mind you, that is not difficult given the other political leaders who are generally lacklustre (Bersani) boring professor and banker (Monti) another anti-mafia lawyer like Di Pietro (Ingroia) or buffoonish/ seedy old pervert (Berlusconi).

It is difficult to think of a parallel here to the Grillo phenomenon. It is as though someone like Frankie Boyle had started to build a political movement based around the social media at the time of the MPs’ expenses scandal. This movement has not come from nowhere but has built itself up over 3 years, organising big stunts such as Va Fa’ day (politicians f—k off) whose symbol was the raised middle finger and winning municipal and regional seats.  Why has it had such an impact? Firstly the sheer scale of  political mendacity and corruption in Italy makes ours look like someone has fiddled the tea kitty. Secondly his use of the social media, clever marketing and shock slogans has been effective particularly among younger people.  Thirdly there is a social layer of educated unemployed and underemployed  people that is significantly larger in Italy than in the UK. Fourthly there are some activists from other parties, including the left, who feel this could be something really different. Finally his headline 5 point programme (the 5 stars) focus on democratic demands about political representation and procedures such as limited mandates, no funding for political parties and minimal expenses which can appeal across the political spectrum.  Some of his other policies such as the right for all citizens to a basic income are also progressive and are obviously attractive to the millions of young (and not so young ) people who have never had a proper job with a permanent contract. He does take some ecological positions and recently talked about nationalising banks which are seen to be riddled with corruption and incompetence such as the Monte Paschi di Sienna – a bank very much linked to supporters of Bersani’s PD (Democratic party – partly ex CP). So he does have some positions to the left of the PD.

However there are a number of other statements –  Grillo does not do big programmes of policies – which are dubious  or even reactionary.  For example he has lumped the trade unions in with all the other wasteful/corrupt political institutions that are holding Italy back. He has also made some anti-immigrant statements and appeared rather soft on his attitude to Casa Pound which is a neo-fascist organisation. Furthermore his movement is less democratic than groups like the PD. There is no real political internal structure apart from the online system. So candidates were voted for online and decisions are made by a team around Grillo and his eminence grise, internet entrepreneur, Caselaggio.  If local M5S leaders cross him they are smeared and excluded sometimes with a sexist tone, as when a woman councillor was accused of going on the TV (against M5S policy) because ‘she treated it like her G-spot’.  It has been difficult enough for Grillo to manage his present small number of elected members without proper internal structures, what he will do with 60 or more MPs is anybody’s guess.  Also unclear is his attitude to possible participation in a coalition government.   Currently he is taking votes from the mainstream left and right of centre parties and could weaken Bersani’s final standing.

Grillo is accused of populism and anti-political demagogy by everybody to the extent that he turns it round by getting his crowds to chant ‘populisti’… ‘populisti’ when he goes on stage. It is a populism of a new type and we have seen small signs of similar phenomena with the ‘pirate parties’ emerging in other countries too. In political terms it shows how mainstream social democracy is failing to lead or inspire significant layers of angry, radical people and at the same time the radical or revolutionary left is not capable of winning these forces. Would Grillo had become so strong if the Rifondazione political project had not collapsed?

2. Whatever happens Monti and austerity policies  are likely to win

An Italian friend emailed me recently and said how for the first time she was completely unsure of who to vote for.  The paradox of this election is that it does not really matter who you vote for there will be another austerity package almost immediately after the elections. The Italian capitalist economy is the real sick person of Europe with its lowest growth rate.  To an even greater degree than Britain the austerity policies do not seem to be working.  Monti the outsider, the man above politics who came to save the country ended up becoming Monti the politician like others before who dream of the ‘big centre coalition’ (remember Craxi?). He found the usual minor bourgeois centre parties like Casini’s UDC  to be willing partners and has his own slate with his name on it like most of the other slates. To give the PD some credit it is the only major slate without the great leader’s name on it!.  The last polls gave him between 10 and 15% and so he is reliant either on Bersani bringing him into his coalition as the finance minister or the outcome being inconclusive so that a new coalition will be cobbled together which is not led by Bersani.

Monti’s  main message is that Italy needs more of the same austerity government and that Bersani has to be ‘serious’ and not allow his slightly more left wing coalition partner, Niki Vendola from the Socialism, Ecology and Liberty party (SEL) anywhere near a ministry. Of course Vendola says Bersani should govern without Monti but no one believes for a moment that Bersani will turn away from Monti’s policies. Indeed Bersani has reassured international finance in the pages of the New York Times. The troika and the bankers of Europe have already publicly given their blessing to a Bersani-Monti government. So much for national sovereignty!  Even if there is a small risk that the Grillo and Berlusconi scores makes this project difficult the lack of a clear political project from the latter makes a Monti/Bersani sequel the most likely.

3. These elections show the difficulties of bourgeois political leadership in Italy

Compared to Britain the political leadership required by the bourgeoisie (in all its heterogeneity) is more problematic in Italy.  Berlusconi’s actions sum up those problems. Originally he was a useful vehicle for going beyond the decrepit and corrupt Christian Democrat and then Craxi PSI (socialist party) coalition governments that had led to the gigantic tangentopoli  (bribesville) 1990s scandal. Later on his blatant merging of public and private interests as well as his outrageous personal sexual behaviour meant he was no longer useful to provide a right of centre hegemony. However these elections have shown there is life in the old dog yet.  He has rebuilt the alliance with a crumbling Lega Nord (Northern League), made all sorts of promises such as repaying a house tax that Italians had to pay under Monti and has been ever present on his own TV and on state TV. In the last allowable polls he was increasing support to about 24% and although this is not enough to win it could possibly make it more difficult for Bersani/Monti. The fact that Monti has been attacking Berlusconi much more strongly than Bersani shows the difficulties for the conservative forces. Monti wants to be able to negotitiate with Bersani from a position of strength because even though Bersani is extremely moderate there remains a link with the trade unions and the workers movement that could lead to some instability and difficulties for austerity policies if the latter felt more confident with a big Bersani win to actually defend their members’ interests. The very fact there are elections at all is not particularly to the liking of either the national or European bosses since it could become a source of instability after Monti has managed to implement some of their demands. Already international press and stock market speculation have been developing over the potential difficulties in Italy.

4. A  real left electoral  alternative to Bersani and the PD did not emerge

In the last month before the election there was a hope that there would be a political force to the left of the PD to express the demands of working people who refused the logic of austerity and were prepared to struggle for an anti-capitalist alternative.  An appeal was made by left wing intellectuals and activists called Cambiare se puo (Yes we can change things). Around a hundred or so meetings around the country brought together the movements, the left of PD activists and militant trade unionists. However the base of the movement got hijacked by the shrewd political manoeuvres of the minor apparatuses that remained from the fall out of Rifondazione Communista and of Di Pietro’s  Italy of the Values party which still had parliamentary representatives. The overriding concern of these groups was to retain or regain representatives in parliament.  They propelled an independent, Ingroia, who is a respected anti-mafia investigating judge, into the leadership of this coalition. Despite most of the original signatories rejecting the final agreed platform the apparatus position won an online vote and therefore Ingroia/Civic Revolution was born.  Present polls suggest they will get across the threshold and have MPs.

An opportunity was lost according to revolutionary left group  Sinistra Critica  – see their statement at the International Viewpoint site.

Although there are some good local activists among the candidates the whole operation is likely to result in the same old leaders being elected and there is no guarantee the Civic Revolution will stay together, indeed it is possible that Bersani will be able to integrate some of the leaders, even Ingroia into a future government. Ingroia himself has not ruled it out. Consequently the road to building a class struggle left and eventually a new left party to challenge the PD is going to be a longer and more difficult one. Of course the situation in Italy is volatile and resistance has not ended, as we have seen with the students and teachers in the education sector and in some bitter workers’ struggles in defence of jobs.  Grillo’s movement, despite it populist nature, does express the anger of many young people and others. There are quite strong movements that are independent of the PD that have had some significant impact in recent years such as the successful referendum campaign to keep water out of private hands. What happens in these elections will not alter much on the ground when it comes to building a class struggle alternative.

In response to my friend’s email I suppose all you can say is do not vote for the pro-austerity parties and if you do give your vote to Ingroia/Civic Revolution  or even to Vendola, who although in alliance with a pro-austerity party was politically opposed to the Monti government, do not think these forces are the basis for developing a real anti-capitalist alternative.

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