With the possibility of another far-right leader in a European government, the left needs to get its act together
On Sunday night the Italian elite and their European counterparts went to bed clinging to one seemingly comforting thought. Even if their favoured outcome, a return of a pro-EU, neoliberal centre-left government to office in Rome, seemed ruled out by that day’s elections, surely that old rogue, Silvio Berlusconi, could form a government in which his right-wing coalition would dominate.
It shows how far things have deteriorated in Italy and across the EU that Berlusconi could seem their saviour. He is, after all, barred from office because of his past misdemeanours, and the dogs in the street know he wants power to help feather his own nest and to protect him from prosecution. He was forced out of the premiership by Brussels to make way for a “technocratic” unelected government (not because of his crimes but because he was not pro-austerity enough).
But hey, at least you know where you are with Silvio and surely, this was the thought as they snuggled down in their pillows, as in the past he could police his allies on the right – the League (formerly the Northern League) and the not so post-fascist Brothers of Italy.
If this wasn’t possible then the second option was for Paolo Gentiloni, the current prime minister, to form a grand coalition uniting the centre-left Democrats with Berlusconi’s coalition and anyone else who would join.
But in the cold light of morning, these dreams were dispelled by stark reality.
Firstly, the 5 Star Movement emerged as the biggest single party, with it projected to win a third of the vote. This is a party which was anti-EU and anti-Euro (though it’s rowed back on that), but made its mark by attacking corruption and the ageing, self-perpetuating Italian elite. That allowed it to paint itself as an anti-establishment force which has won the support of many young people and leftists left homeless by the collapse a decade ago of the radical left.
Yet 5 Star has also hit out at migrants and its talk of modernising Italy echoes the neoliberal programme of President Macron in France.
Because of its Euroscepticism, the Italian and European elites seem determined to block 5 Star from entering government. But why would they wish to? They would have to join a coalition and would be contaminated by having to work with the Democrats and Berlusconi. I’ll come back in a minute as to why the ruling class is so nervous about 5 Star.
Meanwhile, the second upset was the fact that the League outpolled Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia. This is a major upset and shows that he has not been able to escape his record of sleaze and corruption. The problem is that he and the League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, agreed that whoever got the most votes would lead a government. If the right-wing bloc could form one.
Now Salvini is demanding that the right should be allowed to form a government, one led by him. He has also ruled out what he calls “strange coalitions,” meaning entering an agreement with 5 Star.
The League is a thoroughly nasty party which came into existence in the 1990s attacking Southern Italians on racist grounds, accusing them of being work-shy and sponging off the industrious North (the South has also suffered poverty since the creation of Italy in 1861 – nothing to do with its people and everything to do with the state created then). It has dropped that to concentrate fire on migrants, Muslims and the EU (that has always been in third place).
If Salvini was to become premier that means another far-right party in the EU entering government, but this time within a country which is the third biggest economy in the Eurozone and a key force within the EU. Even the Euro bureaucrats can see through their blinkers that there might be a problem here.
If Berlusconi was a loser the biggest setback was for the centre-left Democrats. Their vice secretary, Maurizio Martina, stated:
“It’s clear that this was a very evident and a very clear defeat.”
This was the party favoured by Brussels and seen, today, as the insider’s party of the Italian elite. It is hard to see it getting into office now and if it did it would be as a very junior coalition partner.
The result, obviously, is deep political uncertainty. Over the next few weeks, there will be much scrambling and bargaining while the President tries to piece together a government which he can appoint.
When I woke up this morning the BBC could hardly contain itself from going on about how Italian governments were always unstable and how Italians yearn for strong leadership (a reference to Mussolini). But, firstly, half a century after the Second World War and the fall of fascism Italy was more or less a one-party state, ruled by the centre-right Christian Democrats, with the Communist opposition permanently frozen out of office. The wheeling and dealing characterising Italian government politics reflected the factional conflict within the Christian Democrats. Those factions looked for patronage in Washington, the Vatican and, later, Brussels.
Secondly, the supposed desire for “strong leadership” overlooks the strength of the anti-fascist opposition, which from 1943-1945 created the most powerful resistance movement in Western Europe. Its legacy still matters today.
So, let’s cut away from racist baloney about Italy and the Italians. The Christian Democrats collapsed in the late 1980s overwhelmed by corruption. The Communist Party, unnecessarily, dissolved itself after the Soviet Union collapsed. The Democrats are its bastard child. Despite hopes that Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Democrats could recreate a two-party state that was not to be.
So what explains what is happening in Italy? The turnout in this election was a historic low showing widespread disgust with the political system. Italians were told that after a decade and more of low or zero economic growth, high unemployment (particularly for the young and in the South) and falling living standards, things would get better - few believe that. Much of the anger caused by that is directed at the Italian elite but increasingly at the EU too.
For Italians, the EU was seen as a potential deliverer from the corruption of its political rulers. The EU failed that test, in particular in regards to Berlusconi. Then the 2008 financial crash left Italy with a serious banking crisis, and with debt-laden banks. The EU, under German instruction, ruled out state bailouts although everyone knows if the troubled Deutsche Bank falters the German government will bail it out. The Euro, seen as a reborn Deutschmark, is valued too high for many Italian exporters and it has helped strangle growth.
Into this throw the migrant crisis which has grown with every Western military intervention in the Middle East and North Africa. Like Greece, Italy has been the country to which desperate migrants have come, risking death in the Mediterranean. That has fuelled racism, its true, but there is also sympathy and solidarity for the migrants, but it’s mixed with bitterness that, like Greece, Italy has been left to deal with this by Germany, France and other richer EU states.
Italy has gone from being one of the most pro-EU states to one of the most Eurosceptic. The Italian elite, desperate to stay in the EU whatever, takes solace from the fact its constitution rules out quitting either the EU or the Euro, but that is not written in stone.
Meanwhile, let us return to the big winner which is 5 Star. It is important to grasp that despite much evidence people still see it as the anti-establishment party. In this election, it promised a guaranteed minimum income for the poorest, something that was especially popular in the South. The ruling class is nervous about it because its support is fragile, and could shift either to the left or the right.
Founded by the comic Beppe Grillo it has been able to face different ways but it could only do that because there was no serious challenge from its left. Ten years ago the radical left Rifondazione Comunista fell apart. That left a gaping hole. To an extent, 5 Star filled that.
Now there are hopeful signs that the radical left could be clawing its way back. The Free and Equal Party, a breakaway to the left from the Democrats, look like they might gain a parliamentary presence. The more radical Power to the People grouping probably came too late to achieve that, it was not even on the ballot for Italians living abroad. But its formation is to be welcomed.
If, and it’s a big if, the radical left can rebuild it can begin to work with those who support 5 Star because they view it as anti-establishment. That means throwing themselves into all the movements of resistance to neoliberalism and racism, but it also means looking at how you build a base in society. In that sense, and that alone, there is something to learn from 5 Star.
The Northern League built its support in Northern Italy by consciously adopting methods from the deceased Communist Party, like going door to door talking to people and setting up stalls in local neighbourhoods. The established parties were never seen but the League built a presence. Much is made of 5 Star’s use of social media, and that was important, but just as crucial, if not more, was Beppe Grillo crisscrossing Italy addressing public meeting after public meeting.
Public meetings were supposedly a thing of the past in this neoliberal, post-modern age but Grillo tapped into popular discontent.
Across Italy, there are tens of thousands who identify themselves as being on the left but have been left homeless. They are there to be organised. Whatever government is eventually created is going to be unpleasant and will create resistance.
In the meantime, the repercussions of Italy’s elections will be felt in Brussels. The EU is not about to collapse, the centre can hold, but it is weakened and its problems grow and grow.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.