Fiddling while Rome burns: Berlusconi and the crisis of the Italian Left







By Niamh Cullen

Life seemed very normal in Rome when I was there the weekend before last. There were posters everywhere for a march against the Berlusconi government to take place that Saturday, December 11, but protests and popular demonstrations by those at all ends of the political spectrum are a fairly everyday occurence in Italy, and usually cause little remark. When I lived in Rome a few years ago, the brief life of the last Prodi government was nearing its end and I had to share my way home one Saturday with a right-wing protest march heading for the Colosseum, where marchers sported t-shirts with the delightfully Italian slogan of ‘No communists in the family… thank god’. Such marches usually pass without incident, as did the one on December 11. However political tensions were mounting in the lead-up to the parliamentary vote on the no-confidence motion in the Berlusconi government, to take place that Tuesday. Ever since Gianfranco Fini, former leader of the right-wing Alleanza Nazionale party had withdrawn his support for Berlusconi’s government last August in a surprising show of statesmanship, it had seemed as if his days as prime minister were numbered.

Tuesday’s vote, much anticipated, was seen as that long awaited oppotunity to finally end the Berlusconi reign. However, despite the huge public momentum, and the heroic efforts of several heavily pregnant opposition MPs to get to parliament to place their votes, Berlusconi managed to cling on to power by just three votes. Ferocious anger erupted on the streets on Rome when the news was heard. Cars burned and Italy’s capital saw the worst riots in over thirty years. Since then bombs found on the metro and in several foreign embassies indicate that the situation is becoming increasingly volatile and the political frustration felt by some many is not going to dissipate so easily. Berlusconi, however, despite his grotesque abilities to cling on to power in the face of such public anger and distaste, is only part of the problem.

That the only politician who seems capable of mounting a credible challenge to him is Gianfranco Fini, who was leader up to recently of the right-wing Alleanza Nazionale, the direct continuation of the Fascist Party, offers some indication of the dearth of vision in Italian politics. Italy’s post-war political system collapsed in the early 1990s, mired in a sea of corruption allegations, bringing the two main parties, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, down with it. Since the end of fascism, Italy’s Communist Party – the country’s largest political minority, and the biggest Communist Party in Western Europe – had offered the most consistent alternative to the two-party system, even though they never gained power. However, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dismantling of the Soviet Union led the party to vote itself out of existence in 1990, stoically resigned to its own irrelevance in a post-communist world. Rebranded as the Democrats of the Left, the party has since then gone on to form the backbone of the moderate Left, but has consistently failed to capture the public imagination with any kind of bold, alternative vision.
Berlusconi was able to brand himself as a political outsider in 1994, but since then he has also cheerfully allied himself with the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale as well as with the remnants of the Christian Democrat party, and has made no secret of his admiration for the Duce, that other showman of Italian politics. How is it then, that the Right, which builds both on the legacy of fascism, which resulted in repression, war, occupation and finally a bitter civil war upon its disintegration, and on the legacy of the Christian Democrats whose corruption resulted in the second collapse of the political system, is able to impose its bold, unapologetic vision on contemporary Italy? How does it keep gaining popular support and harnessing disaffection, while the Left seems permanently paralysed by the past, too limpid to offer an alternative vision that might really grasp the imagination of the Italian public?

This is not just an Italian problem of course. Everywhere, the Right has managed to rebrand itself in recent years, convincing the public in France, Britain, and increasingly again in the US, that ideas that work to the detriment of most ordinary people, are what they want. In Ireland, Fianna Fail are managing to rival Berlusconi in their efforts to cling on to power, as their approval ratings continually plunge. But this can’t all be blamed on Fianna Fail; there is little public enthuasiasm for their successors, as Fine Gael offer little in the way of an alternative vision. Labour might do, but they still haven’t really managed to harness the popular mood and grab the public’s attention. Why doesn’t the Left – with the exception of Obama and Zapatero – manage to be populist? Is the Left always too cerebral, too caught up in ideology to think about the bigger picture, and about ways to convince the public of their vision? It seems that now, twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the European Left – often made up, like in Italy of post-communist or communist sympathising parties – can begin to move on from this legacy, and the guilt and self doubt it has left behind, and confidently articulate a positive, definite plan for the future. We need to find a way to move on from the impasse of a populist Right devoid of ideas and a Left that is afraid to articulate any, and to harness the very real public anger that is mounting – in Italy, Ireland, and a few months ago in France – using political and economic calamity as an opportunity to create something new.

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