Italy’s Olive Tree

Italy’s Olive Tree

Who would have guessed a few years ago that Italy’s Communists, converted or otherwise, would win control of their country’s government with the blessing of the U.S.


Who would have guessed a few years ago that Italy’s Communists, converted or otherwise, would win control of their country’s government with the blessing of the U.S. President, provoking a boom on the Milan stock exchange amid visible signs of approval from the international money markets? All this happened with the April 21 vote, showing how much the former Communists (renamed the Democratic Party of the Left, or P.D.S.), and also the world, have altered. It also suggested that, so far rebuffed in efforts to follow the U.S. example by cutting the cost of the welfare state, the Western European establishment may be toying with new ideas.

There are real reasons for rejoicing over the results of the general election, and the main one is that the worst has not happened. Silvio Berlusconi, the TV tycoon turned triumphantly into a Prime Minister two years ago, did not stage a comeback on this occasion, and his chief partner, the smooth neo-Fascist with a human face, 44-year-old Gianfranco Fini, suffered a serious setback in his rise, the 15.7 percent of the vote gained by his National Alliance falling very short of expectations. Their combined failure insured the success of the Olive Tree, or Ulivo, the center-left coalition nominally headed by Romano Prodi, an earnest and uncharismatic professor of economics, but actually dominated by the P.D.S., which opted for total conversion to capitalism and is now led by Massima D’Alema. On its own, Ulivo cannot govern, but it commands an absolute majority in both chambers together with its rival and ally, the other splinter from the C.P., the hard-line Rifondazione Comunista. Its leader, Fausto Bertinotti, has made it plain that his party will give the government full backing–and submit it to popular pressure.

While symbolically significant, the victory of the left is hardly overwhelming. There was no “landslide.” Only Rifondazione–whose share of the vote climbed to nearly 9 percent–made substantial progress. The left won because of defections from the opposite camp. Two years ago Berlusconi could rely on an alliance with the narrow, nationalist Northern League of Umberto Bossi. This time Bossi stood on his own and, appealing to the selfish patriotism of the rich northern regions, did better than anybody thought he would, capturing 10 percent of the national vote with candidates in only one-third of the country.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the victorious left is far from radical. Its prospective Prime Minister, Prodi, a former Christian Democrat, is no more than a mild reformer; To see how far the coalition has moved to the right, one need only mention the new member recruited just before the election; outgoing Prime Minister Lambert0 Dini. His career speaks for itself: For years a high-level official of the International Monetary Fund, this former deputy governor of the Bank of Italy was the Finance Minister of–Sr. Berlusconi. And, judging by their first pronouncements since victory, the leaders of Ulivo seem closer to the banker Dini than to the Communist Bertinotti.

That such a key figure of the financial establishment as Dini should have chosen to join the left, that its victory was hailed by a 5 percent rise in the share index and a climb of the lira, hints at the import of this experiment; whose significance spreads beyond Italy’s frontiers. For several years now, the governments of Western Europe have been told by international advisers that their countries can no longer afford the social “luxuries” to which they have grown accustomed in the period of postwar prosperity. But attempts to attack the welfare state–by Berlusconi in 1994 and the French government last winter–have so far met with a passionate response.

The question is whether the new Italian government, with a parliamentary majority, the good will reserved for a newcomer and the sympathy of the labor unions, can reform the system and preserve its support–or whether, bound to financial orthodoxy by a determination to stick to the rules of European integration, the country will be led to bitter disappointment. It may seem churlish at this point, when the left finally enters the corridors of power and its supporters celebrate in the piazzas of Rome and Bologna, to see also the seeds of defeat. Alas, there are precedents, and the consequences of another left-wing bankruptcy could be disastrous in a country where even today a neo-Fascist gets 15 percent of the vote and a xenophobe another 10 percent. The new period of transition and movement in Western Europe bears serious risks along with great opportunities.

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