The Left’s victory in the Italian general election on the 21 April is likely to have a large impact on popular consciousness. It has revived a sense of collective hope and once more made concrete that fading but never totally obliterated belief that change is possible. This is the Italian Left’s first electoral victory this century, and in this sense marks a watershed. It is quite possible, as was the case with the victory of Mitterand and the French Socialists in 1981, that the momentum of the Left’s advance will not be long maintained, that disillusion will follow, that the reforms achieved under the Prodi government may be fewer, less important, less effective or less lasting than its supporters imagine in the aftermath of Berlusconi’s defeat. But it would be quite wrong to write it off in advance as a mere alternation of office-holders. At the very least, the 1992–94 assault on the Mafia can be resumed and the utter degradation of civil society in southern Italy brought under some control. With the Right in disarray, the Left has won time and space to develop its own solutions to the Italian crisis.

Italy’s new electoral system somewhat exaggerated the Left’s achievement, since the Ulivo (the Olive Tree or centre-left alliance) plus Rifondazione Comunista (which had an electoral agreement with Ulivo) received only 43.3 per cent of the total vote, ahead of the right-wing alliance by a whisker—the Polo (or Pole of Liberty, the Berlusconi-Fini axis) received 42.1 per cent of the vote. If the results of the first-past-the-post elections are taken into account then the Left’s lead was a little larger, and so the overall results give the Ulivo 284 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, Rifondazione 35 seats, The Lega Nord 59 seats and the Polo 246 seats.footnote1 Since Berlusconi was enthusiastic about the non-proportional aspects of the new electoral system, he is in no position to complain. The Left has been given a chance because Berlusconi’s project came apart. It was scuppered, first by the defection of the Lega Nord, and then, in these elections, by the Lega’s strong performance with 10.1 per cent of the vote—nearly 2 per cent ahead of its performance in 1994, and without the benefit of electoral allies. Following the March 1994 elections, Berlusconi refused to meet the federalist demands of the Lega, partly because of his Faustian pact with the ultra-centralist Alleanza Nazionale; this led to the downfall of his government after only eight months. The decision of Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Lega, to break with Berlusconi showed a political courage and attachment to principle that partially atone for his earlier deal with the Right. It seems that many supporters of the Lega were alarmed by the sinister and corrupt features of a government in which the neo-fascist Gianfranco Fini gained respectability and Berlusconi could protect his media interests. The Berlusconi government bungled attempts to reform the pensions system and became the target of popular demonstrations, thus further fraying the allegiance of his allies.

The Right’s erratic record cost it business support. It is clear that the openly anti-Maastricht stance of the Alleanza Nazionale (an) frightened the markets. Even at the start of the election campaign, Berlusconi’s record of proven financial irresponsibility in government, as well as in his own business dealings, were hardly reassuring to the majority of European capitalists. (Murdoch, with his stake in Berlusconi’s Mediaset, is a case apart). The decision of Mediobanca veteran Maccanico to throw in his lot with Prodi and the Popolari, and of the outgoing Prime Minister, Lamberto Dini, to mount his own independent appeal to the moderate Europhile bourgeoisie, increased Berlusconi’s isolation. The latter’s intemperate attacks on fiat, Pirelli, Mediobanca and the poteri forti (‘strong powers’) as a whole—not just his personal enemies at Olivetti—left big business with the impression that, for all its vaunted neoliberalism, Forza Italia was becoming a mere adjunct of Fini, who, on appropriate occasions, will indulge in crowd-pleasing attacks on the financial establishment. Similarly, sections of the Lombard and Venetian industrial petty bourgeoisie, who in 1994 had backed Berlusconi as a more respectable neo-liberal alternative to the plebeian Bossi, now felt that Bossi was their best defence against Fini’s anti-European and south-ern-orientated project. Whilst the prosperous, northern petty bourgeoisie which believed it had a future in the European Union looked one way, the more archaic, crisis-ridden sectors of the same class looked the other. Fini’s gains in the north doubtless came in large part from the small shopkeepers, now for the first time in post-war Italian history faced with the kind of competition from out-of-town supermarkets and discount warehouses that their British equivalents had experienced years before. Such petty-bourgeois desperation fuelled the most notorious episode in the whole campaign, the barracking of Prodi by Torinese shopkeepers in March, even if hard-core an veterans instigated it.

The pds skilfully exploited the divisions which opened up amongst the victors of the 1994 election and managed to remain on reasonable terms with the social movements resisting austerity. Many who voted for the pds have been waiting for this triumph all their lives; for some of the older generation, it may even be seen as the victory over the fascists and the bosses of which they were cheated in 1945.footnote2 Yet the government is led by a former Christian Democrat and the leaders of the pds have long been signalling the modesty of their objectives. The Prodi government will respect the advice of the imf and the Bundesbank, but it will also have to answer to its own electorate, to Parliamentary allies and to social and labour movements which have played an important part in the defeat of the Right. The new government’s moderate instincts were advertised in a post-election interview given by Prodi to the International Herald Tribune, entitled ‘Italian Leader Pledges Eighteen Months of Fiscal Rigour’. Prodi’s approach was apparent in his blunt statement that ‘I made a point during my election campaign of not promising the moon and of not hiding anything. Now we will need a tough medium-term programme of deficit reduction if Italy is to get back on the road to Europe under the Maastricht Treaty.’footnote3

The Ulivo received the support of the pds, the Christian Democrat Popolari, the Greens and the list of Lamberto Dini. The pds will, of course, be the leading force in the government. Walter Veltroni, deputy leader of both the pds and Ulivo, is wedded to the narrow and uninspiring minimalism of that dreary duo, Clinton and Blair, as he explained in a recent interview. Veltroni seems to reject every positive aspect of the pci/pds tradition and subscribes to a cult of the Kennedys that would have distressed an austere moralist like Berlinguer. One sentence sums up his repudiation of the Italian labour movement’s heritage—‘However, I do have a dream in my life: that in Italy, we can succeed in creating something like the Democratic Party in the us.’ Veltroni’s antipathy to Rifondazione is as strong as Blair’s aversion to Old Labour, as is evident from his affirmative answer to the question, ‘Don’t you think that, whatever the niceties of electoral strategy, the hard Left—despite its romanticism—should be wiped out?’footnote4

Massimo D’Alema, the party leader, sees things somewhat differently, as he explained after the election: ‘I have nothing against a Democratic Party. . .perhaps tomorrow it will be born but today the European Left is made up of great socialist, social-democratic and labour forces. And it is to Europe that we must look, to the forces with which we collaborate in the European Parliament, to those social democrats that have been so close to us in these elections as well.’footnote5 In early May, D’Alema was mooting the possibility of a reunification of the pds and Rifondazione, citing alleged European parallels, with Spain and France contrasting the division between socialists and communists in the incorporation of radical elements in mainstream parties in Britain and Germany. Bertinotti, of course, objected: ‘Tony Blair has reduced his internal left to mere witness bearers.’footnote6 As an independent force the Rifondazione will naturally have greater influence in the new Parliament, and in Italian society, than it would if it entered the pds. D’Alema himself is a ruthless, and sometimes short-sighted, political operator. Earlier this year he displayed a fatal desire to compromise with his political opponents, seeking a deal with Berlusconi and Fini according to which, instead of elections, there would have been a coalition government of the pds, Forza Italia and the an. This was aptly dubbed ‘The Three-Headed Monster’, by Il Manifesto. To give credit where credit is due, Veltroni and Prodi both opposed this sordid manoeuvre—had it succeeded, it would have sunk the Ulivo without trace.

But D’Alema retains more rapport with the social roots of the pds than does Veltroni. Many of those who voted for the Ulivo still see it as the bearer of a tradition of social reforms; the pds remains, at least in the Red Regions, a mass party rooted in the localities and firmly linked to the trade unionists of the cgil, which, whatever its deficiencies (and they are manifold), has not yet been transmuted into a predominantly middle-class fan club for its leaders. Moreover, where the pds is too accommodating, as in Turin, it is vulnerable to a strong challenge from Rifondazione.footnote7 Not only do Veltroni and D’Alema still have to reckon with a mass base, but Prodi is no Americanizer. Whilst in no sense an ideological leftist, Prodi is not far removed from the older generation of moderate social democrats elsewhere in Europe, and has a public commitment to ‘social partnership’ and a vision of the world closer to that of a John Smith than either Blair or Clinton.footnote8 Prodi observes: ‘Even Helmut Kohl has had to compromise on spending cuts. That is the way it is in Germany and in Italy, where we need to build consensus. In Britain it may have been different but look at what happened in France recently. The French government tried and failed to impose its measures. Like it or not, this is continental Europe where we need a dialogue among all social partners.’ The new government will certainly ask the trade unions to accept sacrifices. Michele Salvati, the Ulivo economist, who entered Parliament on the pds proportional list, told Il Manifesto on 13 April: ‘The trade unions gave us a hand in reducing the cost of labour. They will have to give us another hand over labour market flexibility. They will give it because otherwise flexibility will be imposed regardless and against the trade unions’ wishes.’ The significance of Salvati’s warning lay in its timing, on the eve of the pds’s ‘Labour Day’—a Saturday of rallies against unemployment with a primarily southern focus. In fact, Prodi’s political approach would induce apoplexy in Peter Mandelson’s coterie, despite the letter of endorsement Prodi received from Blair on the eve of the election. Prodi’s lack of enthusiasm for the excessive simplifications of television has become notorious but his distrust of opinion polls is also worth underlining. Prodi was overheard, at the Ulivo’s 150,000—strong final rally in the Piazza del Popolo on 18 April, pointing out that if Moses had believed in opinion polls he would never have crossed the Red Sea. This having been said, the sorry condition of Italian state finances and Prodi’s belief in the virtues of negotiated austerity do not allow us to be very optimistic.