This Issue
Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

The Italian General Election: Some Thoughts on the Failure of the Ulivo and the Return of Berlusconi

Tobias Abse

1. An Italian transformation, not an Italian transition
Any notion that the turbulent decade that followed the dramatic collapse of Italy’s traditional ruling parties – particularly the Christian Democrats (DC) and Socialists (PSI) – constituted some sort of "transition" analogous to the transitions that followed the collapse of the authoritarian regimes in Greece, Portugal and Spain in the mid-1970s must now be abandoned.1 The idea of an "Italian Revolution", with which Mark Gilbert and others once flirted, is now even less plausible than that of an "Italian transition"; the general election on 13 May saw Craxi’s son elected to parliament, while June saw the crushing defeat of the bid of anti-Mafia campaigner Leoluca Orlando to become President of the Sicilian Region by a power block including politicians notorious for their past links with the Godfathers!

I am not claiming that Italian politics remains as it was in 1992, the year of the Tangentopoli (Bribesville) scandal which rocked the old political establishment. Italian politics has certainly been transformed, but such "transformations", involving the incorporation of some new political personnel within the old ruling group, have been characteristic of Italian politics since at least the 1870s and were the subject of some of Gramsci’s most acerbic political commentary. Whilst the notion of an Italian anomaly, like all notions based on national exceptionalism, is by no means unproblematic, since it rests on a contrast with an idealised norm of Western European democracy that ignores the degree of political corruption associated with Mitterand and Chirac in France and Kohl in Germany, it has nonetheless to be emphasised that some of the most sinister features of Italy’s ancien régime remain in place despite the heroic efforts of the Milanese and Palermitan magistrates of the early 1990s. The Vatican and the Mafia are as central to Berlusconi’s political machine as they were to Andreotti’s, even if nobody in Berlusconi’s shady entourage quite fits the role of Sindona and Calvi who managed to link the two, in their role as Vatican bankers.

Moreover, despite the naive belief in some quarters that the last decade had seen the end of Italy’s conditioning by the Cold War, the new government shows a subservient eagerness to follow in America’s wake that is reminiscent of the DC at its worst (although, of course, competing with Blair’s government for the role of Washington’s Trojan Horse within the European Union, by wrecking any more autonomous, or less fervently neo-liberal, line emanating from French or German social democracy, will prove challenging to say the least).

2. Berlusconi’s clear primacy over the rest of the Right
Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, with 29.4% of the vote in the proportional section of the Chamber of Deputies, a considerable improvement on both the 21% of the 1994 general election (which Berlusconi won) and the 20.6% of the 1996 general election (which Berlusconi lost), is clearly Italy’s strongest party, far ahead of the DS (Democratici di Sinistra, Left Democrats, until 1998 the PDS, the main successor organisation of the old Communist Party – PCI) on 16.6%, and rapidly approaching the kind of figure achieved by the old DC, particularly in regions like Lombardy and Sicily.

Berlusconi’s second government should last far longer than his first seven month administration in 1994 and might conceivably endure for a full four or five year term of a kind unknown in Italian politics since the days of De Gasperi in the late 1940s and early ’50s. The parliamentary balance of forces after the May 2001 election is very different from that of 1994.

Firstly, Berlusconi has a clear majority in both houses of parliament – his coalition, the Casa delle Libertà (literally the House of Freedoms) beat the Ulivo (the Olive Tree, as the centre-left coalition formed in 1996 is known) by 367 seats to 248 in the Chamber of Deputies and by 177 seats to 128 in the Senate, a situation in sharp contrast to his previous spell in office when he had no stable majority in the Senate and had to rely on a mixture of defectors from small Catholic centre parties and life senators to get his measures through.

Secondly, Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord (Northern League) is in no position to repeat its behaviour of autumn 1994 and bring Berlusconi down. Its relatively meagre 30 seats in the Camera (Chamber) and 17 in the Senate are not sufficient for any potential defection by the Lega to reverse the parliamentary arithmetic of the present parliament. And its poor 3.9% share of the vote for the proportional section of the Camera emphasised the Lega’s total dependence on membership of a coalition dominated by Forza Italia to secure a share of the first-past-the-post seats even in the northern Italian regions which briefly appeared to be falling under its hegemony – its vote in the Veneto has collapsed from 29% in 1996 to 10.5% this May.

The days when a Lega candidate like Formentini could win the mayoralty of a major northern city like Milan, even in a second round run-off, are long gone. The Lega’s abrupt twists and turns since 1996, when it stood alone in opposition to both Berlusconi’s Polo delle Libertà (Pole of Freedoms) and Prodi’s Ulivo and achieved its historic maximum of 10.1% (compared with 8.4% in 1994 when it was part of an electoral pact embracing Forza Italia, but not Alleanza Nazionale, in the northern regions), have alienated the bulk of its base and suggest that it is in irredeemable decline, as its more moderate elements gravitate to Berlusconi and its more extreme ones find a home in a galaxy of smaller separatist and regionalist formations outside the Casa delle Libertà.

The self-styled post-fascists of the Alleanza Nazionale who obtained 12% in May (compared with 15.7% in 1996 and 13.5% in 1994 – their first outing under the new name) are more important than the Lega. But their result is clearly a setback and puts Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini, who used frequently to get the highest personal opinion poll ratings of all Italian politicians and once dreamt of overtaking the television magnate in a long game, very clearly in the position of Berlusconi’s junior partner.

Another factor that would suggest Berlusconi’s second government will achieve greater longevity than his first is the much greater degree of support he received from the large industrialists on this occasion. Gianni Agnelli, the owner of FIAT, ostentatiously rallied to Berlusconi’s defence when the Economist and various impeccably bourgeois, and frequently overtly conservative, European newspapers denounced the media tycoon as unfit to govern Italy because of the "conflict of interest" that inevitably arises when the virtual monopolist of private television runs the state, and because of the multiplicity of criminal investigations surrounding his business dealings which had sometimes concluded in guilty verdicts overturned on appeal due to statutes of limitation rather than lack of evidence.

Moreover, the leadership of Confindustria (Italy’s CBI) has become much more aggressive towards the labour movement than it was in 1994, when it had preferred a more devious strategy based on a tripartite concertazione between the state, the bosses and the trade union bureaucracy to the direct onslaught against the gains of the workers’ movement since 1969, which Berlusconi seemed to favour in the pensions battle of autumn 1994 that brought at least a million workers onto the streets.

The first Berlusconi government also suffered in having a Europhobe Foreign Minister, in Martino, at a time when the majority of Italian capitalists were anxious to enter EMU and in paying less attention to reducing the national debt and the current account deficit than its immediate predecessors, the governments led by Amato and Ciampi.

There now seems a much more organic relationship between the second Berlusconi government and big capital, and the initial resentment of the established industrial groups against the arrogant newcomer who usurped their place in Italy’s pecking order has lessened and the Avvocato (Agnelli) now accepts that the Cavaliere (Berlusconi) is Italy’s richest man.

3. A neo-liberal suicide: the miserable record of the Centre-Left
Given the disastrous and at times farcical experience of Berlusconi’s first government, which included such episodes as the Prime Minister receiving an arrest warrant whilst presiding over an international summit in Naples on organised crime, Berlusconi’s second coming is inexplicable without reference to the failures of the Ulivo government that held office from 1996 to 2001.

Enormous popular expectations had been invested in the Ulivo government, arguably the first genuinely left of centre government in Italy’s history, as Parri’s Resistance-based government in 1945 – undermined by the PCI as much as by the DC – held power for too short a time to accomplish much, and De Gasperi’s subsequent "national unity" governments, although incorporating both Communists and Socialists until May 1947, saw the DC entrap the parties of the left for just long enough to outmanoeuvre them before discarding them like the proverbial squeezed lemon. The Ulivo government survived a full five year term (a rare event in the post-1968 period), even if it had three different Prime Ministers (Prodi, D’Alema and Amato), and even if the basis of its majority shifted to the right after October 1998. This full five year term gave the Centre-Left ample time to embark on a serious reformist programme, ample time for example to implement the 35-hour week that Prodi conceded in principle to Rifondazione after the first governmental crisis of October 1997.

Whilst the Prodi government oversaw Italy’s entry into EMU (which had seemed an almost impossible goal in spring 1996) and combined fiscal austerity with some measure of social justice, the subsequent governments of D’Alema and Amato were neither particularly dynamic nor particularly left wing. Insofar as they carried out any changes at all they were reactionary ones, increasing labour market flexibility, privatising parts of the public sector and serving the interests of capital. If Prodi, despite his origins in the left wing of the DC, might be seen in British terms as a decent right wing social democrat, a sort of Italian John Smith, his successors – the DS leader Massimo D’Alema and the former Craxi Socialist Giuliano Amato, who had already presided over an unpopular austerity government back in 1992 – were the executors of policies of the kind that the ghastly duo of Blair and Brown have pursued (with the much greater vigour befitting their historic role as the true heirs of Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph). In short, the centre-left government ended up pursuing a policy that alienated its traditional heartlands amongst the industrial working class who had been one of the bulwarks of the old PCI.

Although the Ulivo has generally been more successful in holding on to the rather more socially diverse constituency it had in the "Red Regions" (Tuscany, Umbria, Emilia-Romagna), the Right’s takeover of the local administration of Bologna in June 1999, when the right wing small business man Guazzalocca beat DS candidate Bartolini by 50.7% to 49.3%, showed that even the most internationally famous stronghold of the old Italian municipal C'ommunism was vulnerable to assault by a demagogic populist mounting a personalised campaign. Whilst most commentators tried to explain the Bolognese defeat in terms of the personal weakness of the DS candidate and the widely publicised internal wrangling that had preceded her selection, it is arguable that the increasingly rightward shift of the local DS, which was already slowly undermining "Red Bologna" from the inside by limited cutbacks, paved the way for an all-out assault by the Right, which has allowed the motor car to return to the pedestrianised areas envied by so many European city dwellers, closed down a women’s centre established two decades earlier and evicted Amnesty International from council property after they refused to pay an extortionate market rent, to name but three outrages.2

To some extent, northern working class voters who had begun to abstain in local, regional and European elections in the preceding years went back to the Ulivo because of a fairly widespread belief in the dangers of a right wing victory, of the real threat posed by the triple alliance of Berlusconi, Fini and Bossi. Despite the chaos and lengthy queues on election day (with polling extended into the night in a few places), caused by an absurd decision to drastically reduce the number of polling stations on a day when many local elections (such as the first round of the mayoral contests in Rome, Naples and Turin) coincided with the general election, turnout was only slightly down on 1996 – falling from 82.9% to 81.2% for the Camera and from 82.2% to 81.3% for the Senate. Although Berlusconi’s flamboyant advertising campaign, which included posting a free picture book about his life to every Italian household, also had a mobilising effect, turnout held up in part because the working class was prepared to give a an unenthusiastic vote to the Ulivo because of their fear of a regime dominated by fascists, xenophobes, mafiosi and Catholic fundamentalists.

Anybody who criticises some of those connected with the Ulivo campaign for adopting too negative an approach in focusing attention on Berlusconi’s misdeeds is vastly overestimating the positive appeal of Rutelli, whose telegenic good looks were not matched by an acute political brain or a clear programme. Insofar as the gap between the two coalitions narrowed in the course of the campaign, it was because in northern Italy large numbers of Ulivo voters who had flirted with abstentionism in local or European contests mobilised in support of the lesser evil against the threat to democracy itself.

In the South by and large, with some regional exceptions, Berlusconi’s demagogy, offering a superficially attractive combination of lower taxes and more jobs (a rather shameless repetition of the empty promises of 1994, when "one million jobs" had been the centrepiece of Forza Italia’s manifesto), succeeded in appealing to the poorer voters and the unemployed, particularly the young male unemployed, who believed that the wealthiest man in Italy might give them more than an allegedly modernising Centre-Left that had turned its back on the organised working class and the marginalised poor.

The failure of a left government to behave like a left government was compounded by the quarrelling between rival factions that had marred both the Ulivo government and the run-up to the official election campaign itself. Whilst Amato had made his peace with Rutelli by polling day, on the eve of the campaign there was absolutely no attempt to disguise the enormous resentment of the outgoing Prime Minister that he had been prevented from becoming the Ulivo’s candidate for the premiership and had to make way for the far more handsome Mayor of Rome, who had gained considerable national publicity during the Papal Jubilee with its attendant huge public works and massive celebrations (and was wrongly believed to be capable of beating Berlusconi in an election based on television rather than public meetings – a belief that Berlusconi seems to have shared, since he consistently refused to have a televised debate with Rutelli). Despite the blatant opportunism demonstrated by his chequered political past (first as a Radical, then as a Green and finally as a member of the Democrats, a group founded by Prodi in 1999), Rutelli had never been associated with Bettino Craxi (an issue on which Antonio Di Pietro, the former magistrate at the heart of the Tangentopoli investigation (who led a separate list which scored a mere 3.9% against the Ulivo in the proportional section of the Camera) had effectively destroyed Amato’s chances of becoming the Ulivo’s candidate premier in 2001).

Rutelli’s weakness as a self-evident political lightweight was effectively exploited by Berlusconi, who constantly suggested that the DS (whom he frequently labelled "Communists") were pulling Rutelli’s strings. Given the DS’s relative weight as the largest single party in the Ulivo, a case could have been made that DS Secretary Walter Veltroni would have been a better candidate premier. The DS’s ex-premier D’Alema would have been an even worse choice than Rutelli in terms of public opinion, and D’Alema’s awareness of this doubtless made him block the Veltroni option, if it was ever raised behind the scenes. The DS itself had for some years (dating back to its days as the PDS) been notoriously divided between D’Alema and Veltroni, and their belated attempts during the campaign to present themselves as the best of friends did little to convince the sceptical.

I have deliberately highlighted only the most obvious personal divisions within the Ulivo, part of a long catalogue of feuds and vendettas played out in public (mirroring the Jacobean atmosphere of the courts of both Tony Blair and William Hague) that would exhaust the patience of any reader without a specialist interest in the minutiae of the long-running soap opera of Italian parliamentary politics. My substantive point is that in the face of a right wing campaign centred on one man who possessed great wealth and power and the appearance of charisma (I would argue that it was manufactured rather than genuine; without the elaborate artifice of the television studios – the perpetual sun-tan, the make-up, the hair-dye and the kind lighting designed to knock a decade off his age, the erstwhile cruise ship crooner lacked the capacity to sway crowds which the unkempt and ugly Bossi had amply demonstrated in his remarkable 1996 election campaign, relying on a marathon succession of public meetings in small towns and villages in the face of a virtual media blackout by both the RAI and Berlusconi’s private channels), an appearance of division on the Centre-Left based at least as much on personalities as on policies was bound to play very badly with the less committed floating voter.

4. The role of Rifondazione Comunista
Quite a number of supporters of the Ulivo have attempted to pin the blame for the Ulivo’s defeat on Rifondazione Comunista, most notably the film director Nanni Moretti, previously renowned for public criticism of the DS’s Massimo D’Alema for not doing anything left wing, including a notable sequence in the film Aprile.

This is not the most appropriate place to give a detailed history of Rifondazione over the last decade. Suffice it to say that Rifondazione entered into a "stand-down" agreement with the Ulivo in the 1996 general election and formed part of the Ulivo’s parliamentary majority, without ever taking ministerial office, until October 1998. At this point Fausto Bertinotti, the party’s leader, came to the conclusion that the strategy of external support for Prodi coupled with periodic threats aimed at extracting concessions for working class interests that the more centrist or neo-liberal sections of the Ulivo3 would have otherwise refused to grant, had reached its limit. It has been argued that the budget of autumn 1998 which precipitated the crisis was rather less harsh than earlier budgets and austerity packages that Rifondazione had accepted, either in toto or after negotiations had secured modifications, and that Bertinotti’s decision was more a response to internal pressures from the party’s left wing, particularly the two Trotskyist currents led by Maitan and Ferrando, than a considered judgement of the objective situation.

The most vociferous proponents of this interpretation have been the followers of Armando Cossutta, the leading figure in Rifondazione’s formation in 1991 in the wake of the dissolution of the PCI, who had traditionally been associated with a pro-Soviet current in the old party. Cossutta’s followers refused to accept the majority decision within Rifondazione’s leading bodies in favour of a rupture with the Ulivo, and split to form the Partito dei Comunisti Italiani (PDCI) during the October 1998 crisis. The PDCI took the majority of the party’s parliamentarians with them, but not enough to prevent the very narrow defeat of the Prodi government on a vote of confidence.

Subsequently Rifondazione abandoned the external support it had given Prodi in favour of outright opposition to the successive Ulivo governments, those of D’Alema and Amato, whilst the PDCI participated in both those governments, obtaining minor ministerial office, to which it clung like a limpet despite repeated empty resignation threats over the Kosovo war. Both the D’Alema and Amato governments, unlike Prodi’s administration to which the concept of the Ulivo and its electoral mandate was central, included right wing Christian Democratic fragments that had been elected to parliament as part of Berlusconi’s electoral block in 1996 – most prominently Clemente Mastella, who had been Minister of Labour in Berlusconi’s 1994 government and whose comments about international Jewish bankers in summer 1994, widely interpreted as anti-semitic, did at least as much to discredit the Berlusconi government in the USA as any pro-Mussolini remarks by the more internationally notorious Alleanza Nazionale leader Gianfranco Fini in the spring of that year.

In short, the post-1998 governments, whilst centre-left in a generic sense, were far less associated with the Ulivo project and its high hopes for an entirely new beginning in Italian politics. And for quite a period, until the 2001 election appeared on the horizon and the label "Ulivo" proved useful once more, substantial components of the government, including not only the centrist defectors from the Berlusconi block but also D’Alema’s faction within the DS (whom Prodi regarded as at least as responsible for his downfall as Bertinotti) were inclined to discard the term "Ulivo" altogether.

In 2001 Rifondazione felt unable to come to a full-scale "stand-down" agreement with the Ulivo, let alone join an electoral block. There was initially an attempt at a "stand-down" agreement with the Ulivo for the Camera, where Rifondazione only stood in the proportional section. As relations between Rifondazione and the Ulivo deteriorated further, Bertinotti ended up saying that a vote for the Ulivo in the first-past-the-post section (75% of the seats) was a legitimate option for Rifondazione supporters but not the only possible legitimate option; in other words, that some Rifondazione voters might feel that the Ulivo’s drift to the right had gone so far that abstention was justified. For the Senate, which had a more complicated electoral system that made it impossible to gain proportional seats without standing in at least some of the first-past-the-post constituencies, the kind of much more formal "stand-down" agreement that would have been required was never even seriously considered.

Without wanting to get into the kind of arid territory beloved of Nina Temple’s Make Votes Count or the Electoral Reform Society (the kind of discussion which causes most left activists to fall into a deep slumber, however exciting it may be to Moshé Machover), it has to be pointed out that one reason for this was that the Ulivo resorted to the use of liste civette (literally "owl lists") in response to the much more widespread use of this technically legal but plainly unfair tactic by Berlusconi’s Casa delle Libertà. The "owl lists" represented a means whereby the major parties could appropriate extra votes in the proportional section under spurious labels in the hope of stopping smaller parties like Rifondazione from achieving the 4% quorum necessary to gain parliamentary representation.

However, "owl lists" were not the only issue. Rutelli made a number of tactically inept neo-liberal remarks at the start of the campaign, gratuitously emphasising the differences between his programme and that of Rifondazione.

Despite the damaging impact of the 1998 split with Cossutta’s PDCI, Rifondazione secured 5% of the vote in the proportional section of the Camera and 5% in the Senate, obtaining 11 deputies and 3 senators. Although this was less than the 8.6% Rifondazione had got in the 1996 general election and less than the 6% of 1994, Bertinotti thus secured his most important goal, the continuing representation of the so-called "antagonist Left" at the national parliamentary level, giving Rifondazione a platform to make radical propaganda against the capitalist system and ensuring its continual coverage in the mass media.

Cossutta’s PDCI obtained only 1.7% in the proportional section of the Camera, far below the quorum. The PDCI secured parliamentary representation in first-past-the-post seats by virtue of its participation in the Ulivo coalition, but its 9 deputies and 3 senators are in effect there by grace of the DS and have far less influence on political life than either Rifondazione or the left current within the DS itself

Given that the gap between the Ulivo and the Casa was far narrower in the first-past-the-post seats for the Camera than in the proportional section, it is plausible to assume that, despite Bertinotti’s ambiguous pronouncements, many Rifondazione voters acted as if there had been a formal "stand-down" agreement. In the Senate, the Casa got 42.5%, the Ulivo 38.7% and Rifondazione 5%. A quick glance at these national figures would suggest that Rifondazione deprived the Ulivo of victory in the upper house, but it must be remembered that Rifondazione generally did best in the "Red Regions", in other words in constituencies where the Ulivo had easily beaten the Casa without any need for Rifondazione’s support. However, Rifondazione must have lost the Ulivo some marginal seats and probably added to Berlusconi’s margin of victory.

Doubtless psephologists and statisticians will argue over all this for many a long year, but in my view the Ulivo was primarily responsible for its own defeat. If Bertinotti had not distanced himself from the Ulivo the more radical sections of Rifondazione’s electorate would have abstained from voting altogether. Nominally "left" governments that start to pursue neo-liberal policies inevitably alienate their own core voters amongst the workers and the poor, and suffer the electoral consequences.

It is arguable that the British Conservatives’ chance of repeating Berlusconi’s triumph in four or five years may be dependent on their choice of leader, but the dangers for New Labour in continuing to pursue a neo-liberal agenda should be obvious. It is equally obvious that what the British working class needs is a pluralist left party on the model of Rifondazione, with roots amongst both radical trade unionists and anti-capitalist youth, that can accommodate the Trotskyist Left without being dominated by it.


1. This view of Italian politics since 1989 or 1992 had considerable popularity amongst mainstream British, American and Italian political scientists involved in the series of volumes on Italian Politics associated with the Istituto Cattaneo and published in English editions by first Pinter, then Westview Press and most recently Berghahn Books. Volume 11 of the series, dealing with the events of 1995 was entitled "The Stalled Transition", and Volume 15 dealing with those of 1999 was labelled The Faltering Transition" – the negative qualifying adjectives serve to indicate an increasingly desperate attachment to a flawed concept.

2. In an article in the July-August issue of Chartist offering an utterly spurious "left" cover for privatisation in local government, Jon Wilson and Graham Smith blithely cite the Bologna model like ageing Eurocommunists on autopilot, so the myth needs puncturing – Red Bologna has gone the way of the "People’s Republic of South Yorkshire", as Sheffield was once popularly known.

3. Some of the most neo-liberal elements were in the PDS rather than the centrist formations, some of whom showed traditional Christian-Democratic hostility to the unfettered free market.