Elections in Italy and the Vanishing Centre
R Arun Kumar
ELECTIONS held to the Italian parliament on March 4, had followed the recent electoral trends of the European continent. One, these elections, by Italian standards, witnessed large scale voter abstention. Two, election results show that the ‘establishment parties’ lost badly, while those challenging these parties have won by significantly increasing their vote share. And finally, the voters did not give any party complete majority, thus throwing up a hung assembly.
Though Italian economy registered a growth rate of 1.5 per cent after almost a decade, it is not benefiting the young and the middle class. A third of the Italian youth remain unemployed and Europe’s statistical agency warned that nearly half of unemployed working-age people in the EU region were at risk of poverty even after welfare payments. On the other hand, one per cent of Italians own nearly 25 per cent of Italy’s wealth. Inequalities are growing and so is social exclusion, thanks to the ‘austerity’ policies imposed by the European Union, European Commission Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in connivance with the native ruling classes. All these have made the people extremely discontented with the general political situation in the country and the parties governing them.
In order to retain the confidence of the people and address their growing discontent, political parties in the country underwent many changes – some of them changed leadership, some others split from the ruling coalition and tried to take up the role of opposition, while few others split from the existing parties and formed new parties to appear ‘afresh’ before the people. All of these manoeuvres failed to convince the people and gain their confidence. It is for this reason, lot of people expressed their displeasure by abstaining from the elections. Those who did vote, have voted against the establishment parties. This had resulted in a situation where, as an Italian diplomat stated, ‘the entire centre collapsed’. The right-wing parties occupied this space by edging out the centre-left and centre-right parties that had traditionally governed the country for decades.
The chief gainer in these elections is the Five Star Movement (M5S), which won around 31 per cent of the votes. The extreme right-wing Lega won 18 per cent, overtaking right-wing Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (14 per cent). Former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s Democrats have secured an all time low votes of below 20 per cent, a staggering loss of 20 per cent votes, from what they had secured in the 2014 European elections. Parties which together secured 70 per cent of the vote in 2008, now got only less than 34 per cent votes. This shows the tremendous loss of support for the established parties. In this process, the extreme right-wing Lega increased its vote share by more than four times to what it had achieved in 2013. Apart from the huge gains made by the extreme right, another grim outcome is the shift of the entire mainstream to the right.
The main agenda that had dominated the Italian elections is the issue of migration and race. The Five Star Movement (M5S), which had started as a crusader against corruption and criminalisation of politics, benefited from the peoples’ anger. Initially, the party was able to attract large sections of the youth towards it as it took up a consistent anti-establishment position during the years of economic crisis. It talked about the question of unemployment, precarious character of the available jobs, European Union and declared its intention of walking out from the EU. Led by a popular comedian, it basically represented the interests of the lower and middle bourgeoisie. Through its rhetoric it succeeded in attracting the youth and working class in large numbers.
As a strategy to further expand its base and win elections, M5S, in the recent period started assuming many opportunistic positions. Whenever a controversial issue came up for discussion in the parliament, M5S parliamentarians have abstained from discussion, lest they lose the support of both the supporters and opposers of such an issue. This was reflected in their stand on the issue of gay rights, healthcare and importantly on the question of migration. They wanted to assume an image of ‘catch-all’. For this purpose, they had toned down their rhetoric and put to back-burner the question of staying in the EU or walking out of it, in the name of presenting a more ‘professional face’, rather than an ‘extreme face’. They declared that they are per se against ‘ideology’ and ‘mass actions’ and talked about individual liberation, as opposed to solidarity.
As the election campaign progressed and migration emerged as the central issue, the leaders of M5S, adopted a harsher rhetoric against migration. By taking this position, they wanted to easily win over the people who were discontented with the economic hardships. This suited them well naturally, as they stood neither for an ‘ideology’, nor for a struggle against the economic policies that had, in the first place, led to the current predicament. Having no competition from any other party to assume the mantle of being an ‘anti-establishment party’ and in the absence of a viable Left force, they succeeded in securing good number of votes.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE LEFT?
Italy, during the post-World War period, had one of the strongest communist parties in the entire Western Europe. The Communist Party of Italy (PCI), during the 1970s and 1980s was deeply influenced by reformism and Eurocommunism. This ideological dilution, together with the fall of Soviet Union in the early 1990s, virtually meant the party give away all its revolutionary positions and finally turn into the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS). Working class struggles were given a go- bye and trade unions led by the party started surrendering to the European capital for the sake of being in the government. Many of the militant cadre disgruntled by these decisions of the compromising leadership, came together to form the Communist Party of Refoundation (RCI) at a later stage.
The foundation of RCI was viewed as a significant development of regrouping of the communist forces. The party secured millions of votes in various elections as it was in the forefront of militant anti-globalisation struggles, like in Genoa. One of the major limitations of the RCI was its lack of clear cut political line or programme, as it was a ‘coming together’ of not only the militant elements in the PCI, but also of various groups and shades of the Left. This lack of programmatic cohesion affected the functioning of RCI, when confronted with crucial questions like, whether to take part in the government, along with other centre-left parties in order to keep out Berlusconi and the Right from power. This had led to sharp differences and ultimately to a split in the party.
In the name of its ‘responsibility to the nation’, the RCI advocated the formation of a modern ‘National Liberal Committee’ (like the body uniting the different currents of the anti-Nazi Resistance in Second World War) with which to drive out Berlusconi and the Right. It reasoned that to thwart the danger of Right, it needed to ally with centrists and centre-left. The participation of RCI in the government was a result of its compromise with these parties, all of whom were implementing neoliberal policies. This had diluted its edge in the struggle against the neoliberal policies. People lost faith in RCI and it was also viewed as one more compromising party. The party ceased to be a reference point for being an ‘anti-establishment’, militant, working class party. This led to a steady decline in the strength of the RCI, that it became a completely insignificant force, so much so that there was no significant involvement of the Left in some of the major anti-neoliberal struggles that had taken place during this period, like the struggle against water privatisation and that of the unemployed indignados. The decline of RCI and with it of the Left forces, created a political vacuum, into which the M5S slipped in.
The M5S is bound to fail because of its opportunistic positions. In this background, to lead peoples’ struggles new left parties or groupings like the Potere al Popolo (which polled one per cent votes in the recent elections) are taking birth. This party, predominantly consisting of youth, clearly states that in the name of fighting the growth of neofascist forces or far right parties, the Left should not ally with the centrist social democrats or with the parties from the right as it is their policies that ‘effectively paved the way’ for the growth of the far right and hence they cannot be trusted ‘to act as a bulwark against the far right and safeguard of democracy’. Talking from the experiences of other European countries, they argue that ‘the struggle against fascism is bound to fail if it doesn’t go beyond the mere defense of existing political institutions and economic regime, and if it submits to bourgeois forces in the name of ‘anti-fascism’. Only by opposing neoliberalism, which created the conditions for a fascist rise, and by leading the struggle against Islamophobia and every form of oppression, can we offer a viable political alternative….’
These lessons are very relevant not only for the European Left, but for other countries too, where the centre is losing ground and there is a widespread anger against the parties of the ‘establishment’.