Italy's government of strange bedfellows

Issue 

By Dick Nichols

In early October, when Italy's Olive Tree coalition government of Romano Prodi lost a confidence motion by one vote because the Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC) withdrew its support (and split in the process), most observers expected Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro to install a "technical" government or to leave Prodi as caretaker prime minister while new elections were called.

Few if any predicted the actual outcome: an eight-party coalition government headed by Left Democrat (DS) leader Massimo D'Alema, still based on the Olive Tree alliance but spanning two more forces — on the right the Democratic Republican Union (UDR) of ex-Christian Democrat president Francesco Cossiga and on the left the newborn Party of Italian Communists (PDCI) of Armando Cossutta, president of the PRC until its recent split.

Italy is now wondering how D'Alema's UDR minister of defence, Carlo Scognamiglio, former Senate leader in the 1994-95 government of corrupt media tycoon Sergio Berlusconi, will get on with his PDCI attorney-general, Oliviero Diliberto, former head of the PRC parliamentary fraction.

Or how long a government can last which includes the UDR of Cossiga (who as president was almost certainly a member of the secret anticommunist organisation Sword) and the Greens.

Togetherness

Yet this government of strange bedfellows is likely to last a good deal longer than appearances suggest.

First, none of its member parties want to face the voters after two and a half years of austerity aimed at getting Italy into the European common currency.

Second, it brings together an unprecedented coalition of the country's Catholic and non-Catholic administrative elites (it contains three former prime ministers!).

Third, it finally breaks the hoodoo against "communists" running the country (after some diehard Vatican media squawking, the pope too gave his blessing).

Fourth, it has a stable parliamentary majority and is not hostage to deals with the PRC.

Fifth and most important, it is the best bet at keeping the lid on the class struggle, certainly not a job that corporate Italy feels like entrusting to the parties of the right (Berlusconi's Forza Italia!, the National Alliance and the separatist Northern League).

Unsurprisingly, Fiat supremo Giovanni Agnelli went out of his way to greet the birth of D'Alema's broad alliance for government, even though it has come at the price of a retreat from Italian capitalism's cherished goal of replacing the country's "partitocracy" with a two-party system.

Agnelli is right to be relaxed. While the UDR and independent experts get the key economic and administrative portfolios, the Greens and the PDCI have been installed, according to rule, in equal opportunity, environment and regional affairs.

Not that the new government's birth was painless. The constituencies of the UDR and PDCI were both nervous about cohabitation. While a majority of the UDR followed Cossiga in proclaiming that "the cold war is finished" some old anticommunist warriors just couldn't stomach the turn ("A red as attorney-general, it's too much!" screamed one UDR MP) and formed a dissident UDR parliamentary fraction.

Under pressure to justify the PDCI's cohabitation with the UDR, PDCI leader Cossutta committed the gaffe of exposing President Scalfaro's role in the whole business. According to Cossutta, the president had "expressed the concern that in the event of elections and a victory for the right there would be the risk of having a right-wing president of the republic for seven years".

(This sent the right into predictable paroxysms. "We have in the presidential palace not a guarantor of the constitution but a lord protector of the Olive Tree", said National Alliance MP Adolfo Urso.)

The PDCI parliamentarians, having split from the PRC, were free to indulge their ministerial appetites. So deep-going are these that PDCI Senate deputy president Ersilia Salvato, on losing the much-craved position of attorney-general to Diliberto, left the new party after a membership of two weeks!

PRC response

After the fall of the Prodi government and the PRC split (with 29 of its 45 MPs going with the PDCI), the full force of mainstream media abuse was turned against PRC secretary Fausto Bertinotti. It was confidently predicted that the PRC's constituency was so angry with his "adventurism" that he would be addressing a half-empty square on the occasion of the party's October 17 national mobilisation in Rome.

Yet the response of the PRC's membership and base was like a massive vote of confidence in the party's decision to withdraw support from Prodi. Between 150,000 and 200,000 turned up for the march and rally, which filled three squares of central Rome and was the biggest PRC rally ever.

The events of the last month seem to have drawn new groups to the PRC banner. According to the reporter for the left-wing daily il manifesto:

"Last year, at the ritual October demonstration, the old and the young, dressed in their barricade gear with big hammer and sickle flags, set the tone ... This time there were a lot more young people — the Young Communists very lively with their 'Rebel!' slogan — but not only young people with the extreme left look. And there was a sizeable group of middle aged people who in previous years had looked to be on the road to political extinction."

In his rally speech, Bertinotti stressed that the problem with the budget was that it was a totally inadequate response to the risk of world recession, which could be countered only by a massive expansion in public sector employment, especially in the south.

Accepting the budget would have been to have left the workers and unemployed politically voiceless. What was at stake in the fight with Cossutta was whether there was to be "a project of political autonomy for the popular masses in Italy".

However, opposition mustn't mean withdrawal into splendid isolation. The PRC must continue to put up proposals to the D'Alema government, Bertinotti stressed. "Comrade D'Alema", he added, "this is the people of the left. Without this people you won't get very far!"

Split deepens

Cossutta's answer to Bertinotti has been to blame the PRC for the necessity of accepting the UDR as a government partner and to invite the PRC to become part of the government majority.

"If he decided to give the D'Alema government a hand, Cossiga would stay at home and we would have a majority that was more clearly to the left", he told a meeting in Milan.

Cossutta admits that the majority of PRC members (70-90%) have remained with the PRC, but maintains that the majority of PRC voters would support the PDCI.

Yet, even conceding that this is true now, how will the PDCI maintain support and a political space for itself when D'Alema is already sounding like the Italian Blair and the PRC is now in much better position to organise future opposition to government austerity?