An earthquake for nothing? As I was crossing Italy, trying to sense the mood on the eve of the crucial parliamentary elections of March 27-28, a line from Lampedusa’s The Leopard kept coming to mind: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
I had come to witness the collapse of a discredited regime, an expression of the people’s revulsion against the corruption of politics by money. Though the now-despised system had been dominated for nearly half a century by the Christian Democrats, in the past decade its most symbolic figure was probably the party’s “Socialist” ally, Bettino Craxi, yesterday prime minister, today one of the many politicians awaiting trial in the corruption scandal that’s rocked Italian politics for two years. Now, Craxi is a man of the past. Judging by the ‘campaign thus far, the man of the future is none other than Craxi’s favorite television tycoon, Sua Emittenza (his broadcasting highness) Silvio Berlusconi, the Citizen Kane the electronic age, who, like Kane, has turned to politics. What we have seen in this campaign has been the marketing of a would-be prime minister-Berlusconi–and a new political movement, Forza Italia.
And yet it would be wrong to conclude that the election was much ado about little. A victory by Berlusconi and his allies–Umberto Bossi and his Northern League, Gianfranco Fini and his neo-Fascists in the South–would mean a big change in Italy, and for the worse. The corrupt but rather tame moderate right that had been running ItaIy would be replaced by the hard right.
The most striking phenomenon I encountered on my Italian journey was general bewilderment. The experts were at a loss and the people puzzled. They were asked to elect anew Senate and a new lower chamber but they did not know whom to elect or how.
For one thing, they are voting under a new set of rules. In choosing members of the crucial Chamber of Deputies, with its 630 seats, the voter must cast two separate ballots. With the first, for one-quarter of the seats, she has no major problems, since the procedure is like that under the old system of proportional representation. She votes for her party and hopes it will get the 4 percent of the national vote necessary to qualify for the allocation of seats. The 155 deputies are then chosen from party lists in proportion to the votes obtained in twenty-five regional constituencies.
The trouble starts with the ballot for the remaining three-quarters of the members, who are to be elected from 475 single-member constituencies by a simple majority, as in Britain or the United States. This principle of “first past the post” has polarized politics, forcing the parties of the left into a reluctant alliance and those of the right into a shotgun wedding. Will the Italians, who are given daily voting lessons on television, learn and accept the rules? Will they be able to make their choice among the “recycled” parties and politicians (the word is used for the postscandal practice of candidates changing parties and parties changing their names)? Will they accept the idea of voting for the lesser evil or, feeling deprived of true choice, will they stay away from the polls?
At any rate, by the time you read this the results will be known. You will be able to see whether the right, for whom the rather unreliable public opinion polls predicted more than 40 percent of the vote, captured the 316 seats needed to form a government. And whether the left, whose vote pollsters estimated to be over a third of the.electorate, made gains in the two weeks before the election, when the publication of polls was prohibited. Or whether the Christian Democratic center, depleted and discredited, nevertheless retained a voice. I can only set the scene–which should be done even for a tragicomedy.
The Judges Take Over
The political corruption scandals caused a stupendous upheaval in Italian politics. The, Milan prosecutors uncovered a fantastic web of complicity between the ruling parties and big business based on kickbacks for state or municipal contracts. The system provided parties and politicians with millions, while insuring the suppliers a monopoly. Ministers, party leaders and about a third of all parliamentarians are under investigation. The catch was as impressive in the business community.
The first victims of the purge were, naturally, the five par- ties that made up the ruling coalition. Craxi’s Socialist Party was wiped out altogether and the once-mighty Christian Democratic Party has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. The immediate beneficiaries were two parties outside this establishment that had no occasion to be bribed: the Northern League and the neo-Fascists. The Democratic Party of the Left (P.D.S.) also profited. In its earlier incarnation as the Communist Party, it did not get seriously involved in the corruption, although in its search for “historic compromise” it did not effectively attack the corrupt system. Not only was the P.D.S. the only big party to emerge unscathed; it also gained in another sense. Previously squeezed between its splinter movement, Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refounding), made up of die-hard Communists, and Craxi’s party on the right, it gained room for maneuver when the Socialists collapsed.
Even before the national election, the political upheaval had electoral consequences. The first was the conquest of Milan’s town hall by Umberto Bossi’s Northern League. Then, in the municipal elections last November, the Fascists made a spectacular leap in Rome and Naples [see Singer, “Ciao, Baby,” December 13]. Yet the real winner was the P.D.S., which emerged as the leader of a broad alliance of the left, comprising Rifondazione; the Greens, who never quite took off in Italy; La Rete (The Network), the anti-Mafia movement headed by Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo; and a number of moderate democrats. This coalition, under the Progressive banner, swept all the key municipal elections, and experts began touting P.D.S. leader Achille Occhetto as the new prime minister of Italy. They did not allow, however, for the polarizing effect of the majority-wins system. Thus they were surprised when, in January, with an impressive number of television spots, a new product was launched in the political marketplace: Citizen Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia.
When you telephone Forza Italia’s headquarters in Rome, while waiting you hear the party song and’ then the slogan from which it takes its name: “Forza Italia!” This exhortation (best translated as “Go! Go! Italy!”) is used by Italian sports fans when cheering one of their national teams. It resounded at the winter Olympic games in Norway, giving Berlusconi’s party some free publicity, which was badly needed since the party salespeople were supposed to build an electoral machine almost overnight, one that is not organized as a party, but rather as a network of social clubs.
To see how these clubs functioned, I went to EUR, the suburb named after Mussolini’s universal exhibition of Rome, staged there in the 1930s. The meeting was held in an apartment rented for the purpose atop a block of flats. About twenty people were present: three trendily dressed young women, three more conservatively attired women, a couple of yuppies, a few lower-middle-class social climbers and some pensioners. As Berlusconi had recently been attacked as a Robin Hood in reverse, because his tax proposals penalized the poor, the group spent much of the time discussing how to counter this criticism. Under my prodding, it was revealed that one of the two candidates the club was backing was a recycled Christian Democrat. Otherwise, the talk centered on a musical show and various cultural outings. On the face of it, they did not seem a very dangerous bunch-nor a very efficient one. In fact, the group seemed to be putty in the hands of Berlusconi’s plastic men at party headquarters in Rome.
The headquarters is located in an old palace, close to Via Corso, filled with striking modern furniture and computerized to the hilt. While some of the junior staff members may have been hired, the key positions are held by people from Fininvest, the Berlusconi consortium, and particularly from its advertising subsidiary, Publitalia. They are sales types in double-breasted jackets and gray trousers, the kind of corporate go-getters who get invited to the company do in Monte Carlo as a reward for their achievements. These are the ruthless hollow men of the center waiting obediently for the orders of the supersalesman himself.
Smooth and slick, dark and rather handsome, Berlusconi was born in Milan in 1936. The son of a bank clerk, he made his first fortune during the building boom of the 1960s with shady funds transiting through Switzerland (the origin of his money is often beyond proof but seldom above suspicion). He went into television at the end of the 1970s and made another fortune. An admitted member of the P2, the Masonic lodge whose members plotted the death of the republic, he plausibly explained that he was never deeply involved. After all, the political establishment treated him very well. His links with prominent Christian Democrats and, above all, his close connection with Craxi resulted in broadcasting laws being bent to serve his interests. Today, Italian television is divided roughly in two: three networks run by the state and three run by Berlusconi. He also owns pay-TV channels, film companies and, through the publishing house of Mondadori, a host of publications, including Panorama, a weekly paper. In short, he sits atop a media empire so large as to pose a threat to democracy. Add to it insurance companies, a chain of stores and, last but not least, A.C. Milano, the soccer champion of Italy and Europe.
Admirers point out that Berlusconi’s conglomerate is the second largest privately owned business in Italy. Critics stress the dubious origins of his fortune and his sizable debts, estimated to be at least $2.2 billion. If the left were to win this election, his house of cards could come tumbling down. If he lost one of his television channels, Publitalia might not keep its dominant position in advertising, the banks might start calling in his loans, etc. etc. Berlusconi is no Ross Perot, rich enough to dabble in the political game. For him, politics is a matter of economic survival.
It is no easy task to unite the right. Berlusconi has two partners who are not on speaking terms with each other. Bossi, the leader of the Northern League, has only insults for the neo-Fascists. He does not speak kindly of Berlusconi either, and it appears that he already regrets their pact because it could mean that he will lose some of his supporters, who are shocked by his deal with a man of the old regime. On the other hand, some of his backers among the Northern bourgeoisie may regard Berlusconi as a more respectable candidate.
Berlusconi has a much better relationship with his Southern partner, Gianfranco Fini. Youthful, intelligent and well-mannered, Fini is the new marvel of Italian politics, a neo-Fascist with a human face. Indeed, it was unsettling to watch his television debate with Occhetto; the expected duel turned out to be a competition in moderation. For this election Fini changed the name of his party to National Alliance, and he is trying to bring it into mainstream politics.
To see how presentable his party looks (what’s in a new name?), I went to Naples, where at the regional parliamentary assembly I met the leader of the local neo-Fascist group, a big, jovial-looking man with a stentorian voice. My purpose was to get his true view of Fini’s strategy, which implies that just as the P.D.S. condemned Stalinism, his party should disown Fascism. For twenty minutes or so, he resisted, then, under pressure, erupted with praise for Mussolini and boasted that his father had been jailed as a Fascist after liberation. The candidates I watched that evening confirmed the impression that Fini has a long way to go in shedding the Fascist past.
In beautiful Naples, where contrasts between rich and poor bludgeon the eye, where the press recently reported a link between the Camorra (the local Mafia) and the judiciary; in the South, where the unemployment rate is more than double that West in the North and where welfare funds may be shrinking–the likely progress of neo-Fascists under whatever name is a worrisome prospect, And yet, at this stage, the most dangerous man of the right is probably Berlusconi, the demagogue who promises lower taxes and 1 million jobs. Why would the Italians massively vote for such a man and thus perpetuate the Craxi connection? Because he is a businessman, not a politician. Because he is a champion, like A.C. Milano. Because he has made pots of money and nothing succeeds like success: Such explanations imply that he is moving into, an ideological vacuum, vacated by the once-powerful left.
Alternanza and Alternativa
In a big exhibition hall just outside Rome, in front of several thousand people, Achille Occhetto, with a graying mustache and a twinkle in his eye, was launching the campaign of the Progressives. Youth groups waved red, white and green flags, but the mood was not delirious and the speaker made no attempt to whip up enthusiasm. He had just returned from London, where he got the blessing of the City, and was going to Brussels, to get the approval of NATO. He shared the platform with Luigi Spaventa, the stern Budget Minister, whom nobody would suspect of socialist leanings but who is the left’s candidate against Berlusconi in the heart of Rome.
But then I did not see much enthusiasm at a rally in Rome where Lucio Magri, the sophisticated theoretician, told his Rifondazione comrades that the gravity of the crisis and the electoral law made it impossible to contract out of the left alliance; his speech was an appeal to reason rather than to emotion.
The mood on the left, at least among its leaders, is best illustrated by the violent,attacks against the new secretary of Rifondazione, the former labor leader Fausto Bertinotti, when he dared to propose the taxing of interest on treasury bills. Italy’s public debt is larger than its annual gross national product, and servicing it is a tremendous burden. Besides, the tax exemptions on treasury bills have made renting out money more attractive than putting it into productive enterprises.
Thus Bertinotti had good economic reasons, as well as considerations of equity, for raising the question. The subsequent outcry on the Left against his proposal can only be explained by the shift of Occhetto’s party, which, with the fall of its potential allies, has been driven to the center. It was thus forced to accept the deflationary economic policy of the last couple of years–with its slashing of social services and its attack on wages–and adopt the author of this policy, the governor of the Bank of Italy turned Prime Minister, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, as its model.
This election is fascinating because Italy is both lagging and leading. Its course of “normalization” is reminiscent of France after the fall of the Fourth Republic in 1958, only in speeded-up form. De Gaulle reshaped the nation’s political institutions. Italy has begun this process and will soon be urged to move toward a more presidential system. In France, Mitterrand brought the left into consensus politics by abandoning the dream of a different society. In Italy the fashionable word is alternanza, meaning a system in which two similar parties alternate in power. A left that no longer represents a radical alternative will thus be allowed to take office.
But Italy points also to the future. Throughout Western Europe the capitalist establishment must determine how it will cope with the deepening structural economic crisis: by class collaboration or by other means? For left-wing candidates the snag is that there is no longer any scope for historic compromise. What they will be asked to do ,is to attack the welfare state, the protection of wages, all the postwar victories of the labor movement. What is pathetic about the left’s performance in this election is that on key issues–unemployment, privatization, the market–its main party does not seek alternatives. For example, how to invent new forms of social ownership? How to entrust the working people with some power over their fate? Almost twenty years ago, Chris Marker made a documentary film with a title both eloquent and difficult to translate: Le fond de l’air est rouge. The underlying weather is no longer red or even pink. It is Tory blue and threatening to turn black. If the left wants to survive, it must begin to redress, the ideological imbalance.