Alexis Tsipras: growing personality cult

Electoral reform and Greek gifts

While the new premier seems destined to disappoint, sections of the left have joined forces in a lash-up that looks set to leave workers cold. Toby Abse reports

Prime minister Matteo Renzi has from the very beginning of his tenure sought to present himself as a man of action capable of breaking through previous logjams in the Italian political system. He also claims that he will transform the European Union and persuade Angela Merkel to relax the fiscal compact placing rigid limits on Italy’s budget deficit. Whilst like some previous Italian prime ministers he has found common ground with the French president in terms of a European economic outlook, getting the German chancellor to abandon her deflationary European austerity strategy seems an impossible goal. I am citing this as another indication of his probably inflated evaluation of his own capacity to sweep aside structural obstacles, but not one I will be focusing on in this article.

His proposed electoral reform - the ‘Italicum’, which I have referred to in a fair degree of detail in an earlier article1 - has made some progress, but its passage through the Chamber of Deputies by 365 votes to 156 with one abstention on March 12 does not by any means mark the end of the story, despite Renzi’s unconcealed hunger for instant results and immediate triumphs. In the Chamber of Deputies Renzi’s centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) has a clear majority and, since the Italicum is essentially a deal between Renzi and Silvio Berlusconi, the combined weight of the PD and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia was quite sufficient to ensure that in the end the bill went through, regardless of any minor rebellions within the PD or objections from smaller parties.2

The biggest problem for Renzi will be in the Senate, not the Chamber of Deputies. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the bizarre regional majority premiums - under which the Senate was elected in February 2013, when the old Porcellum (Pig Law) was still in force - mean that the PD has no majority in the upper house. So it is far more dependent on the good will of other parties, like Angelino Alfano’s Nuovo Centrodestra (New Centre Right - NCD), which split away from Berlusconi during Enrico Letta’s administration. The NCD, which felt sidelined by Renzi’s deal with Berlusconi, is not happy with the Italicum as it stands.

Secondly, it is Renzi’s intention to replace the elected Senate with a new second chamber - an unelected Assemblea delle Autonomie, which would consist of unpaid representatives of municipalities, metropolitan cities and regions - in other words mayors and regional presidents doing a second job in their spare time.3 Whilst it could be argued from a leftwing perspective that a monocameral system which abolished the second chamber altogether might be an improvement on what has been often described as the ‘perfect bicameral system’ created by Italy’s 1948 constitution, an unelected second chamber is a regressive step, even if under Renzi’s plan a government would no longer have to secure a vote of confidence from it. In short it is an undemocratic scheme with as little intrinsic merit as Nick Clegg’s failed attempt at reforming the British House of Lords.

Regardless of its merits or lack of them, it is self-evident that the current members of the Senate will have no enthusiasm for this scheme, even if party discipline might compel some of them to give it public endorsement - turkeys do not vote for Christmas! Whilst a few current senators might perhaps subsequently resume their careers in the Chamber of Deputies, most of them would have to say a lasting farewell to a well-paid post with ample expenses, as well as the social prestige and media profile that goes with senate membership. This hostility, whether overt or latent, to their own abolition, might well make the senators more liable to delay or modify Renzi’s electoral reform of the lower chamber.

Renzi is also in a bit of a double bind as to whether to go in for electoral or constitutional reform as his first objective. If he prioritises getting the Italicum through the Senate, the potential danger from his point of view would be that, in the aftermath of the electoral reform of the lower chamber, the smaller parties might precipitate a general election before the Senate is abolished. As matters stand, the judgement of the Consulta (constitutional court) which outlawed the Pig Law in December 2013 created a new electoral system for the Senate - a purely proportional system without any majority premium for the largest party or coalition, albeit one with an undemocratic 4% threshold. This arrangement would mean that even if smaller parties represented in the current parliament found themselves excluded from the new lower chamber by the workings of the Italicum, they would still stand a good chance of preserving some representation in a continuing Senate elected under a proportional system and in all probability would wreck the chances of the PD or any other party being able to form a single party government with a majority in both chambers.

If, on the other hand, Renzi prioritises his attempt at major constitutional, as opposed to merely electoral , reform by seeking to abolish the Senate before the Italicum completes its passage through the current upper house, he potentially risks complete failure on both fronts - the senators could in effect filibuster over the Italicum by prolonged discussion of numerous amendments, resist their own abolition, bring down Renzi’s government and precipitate a general election in which both chambers would be elected by a purely proportional system, albeit one with an undemocratic 4% threshold. Regardless of which party or parties won such an election, Renzi’s national political career might end before his 40th birthday and the former Florentine mayor might have to return to provincial obscurity.

Left challenge

Whether or not the Italicum is enacted or the Senate is abolished, the one certainty in terms of Italian electoral politics is that there will be a nationwide test of the competing parties at the European elections on Sunday May 25.

There will be a challenge to the PD from the left in the form of the Lista Tsipras (officially called L’altra Europa con Tsipras - Another Europe With Tsipras). This list is a combination of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà (SEL) and various intellectuals and self-proclaimed representatives of civil society, some of whom took the initiative in setting up the project. Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greece’s radical left party, Syriza, and the candidate of the European Left Party for the presidency of the European Commission, has unsurprisingly given his blessing to the list that bears his name and visited Italy in order to bring this very heterogeneous collection of forces closer together.

Whether it will be able to cross the 4% threshold (now applicable in Italy for European as well as national elections as a result of earlier collusion - in 2008 - between the PD under Walter Veltroni and Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà against the radical left) remains to be seen. Its failure to include in its name any of the obvious words that might give the mass of voters some clue as to where it stands in the political spectrum - words like ‘communist’, ‘socialist’, ‘workers’ or even ‘left’ - was, to say the least, a very bad start. Most working class voters do not read esoteric journals like the political/ philosophical MicroMega, whose editors played quite a role in initiating the project, or even the increasingly misleadingly subtitled “communist daily”, Il Manifesto, whose small and declining readership is essentially made up of ‘red professors’ and the like and whose current editor is also a supporter of the project.

Whilst the Lista Tsipras may mark some temporary and partial reconciliation between SEL’s Nichi Vendola and the PRC’s Paolo Ferrero - bitter enemies since the July 2008 congress of the PRC, which precipitated the subsequent split by Vendola’s right wing of the PRC, the main component of the future SEL - it does not even represent unity amongst the forces associated with the Italian communist tradition. The Partito dei Comunisti Italiani (PdCI) is not part of it - the PdCI, closer to the more pro-Moscow current within the old ‘official communist’ PCI, had already quarrelled with the PRC for a second time and put an end to the Federazione della Sinistra between the two communist parties. This was an alliance that once seemed to prefigure a reversal of their 1998 split - a reversal in the name of a common communist identity in opposition to the social democratic turn of Vendola’s SEL.

Nor does the Lista Tsipras include Marco Ferrando’s Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori - although there is as yet no sign of an independent electoral intervention by these hard-line Trotskyists, who have stood in recent Italian general elections. The same applies to Ferrando’s erstwhile comrades and now bitter rivals in the Partito di Alternativa Comunista (PdAC), who stood in one region in the 2013 general election and called for abstention rather than a critical vote for those rivals in all the others. Meanwhile, Sinistra Critica, the Italian section of the Fourth International,4 split into two fragments in the course of 2013.

The majority of the candidates of the Lista Tsipras are not members of the PRC, SEL or any other political party and it is by no means clear what criteria were followed in drawing up the lists in any of the large regional constituencies into which Italy is divided for European elections. Sadly, this opaque method of candidate selection has already led to internal quarrelling and, according to the centre-right daily Corriere della Sera, the internationally famous Sicilian crime novelist, Andrea Camilleri, and Paolo Flores d’Arcais, the main editor of MicroMega,5 both of whom played an absolutely key role in the early days of the project, have disavowed it.6 Camilleri was reportedly very unhappy about the candidacy of Luca Casarini, a former autonomist who became a celebrity of the European Social Forums a decade or so ago and has a somewhat chequered record with the criminal justice system that probably does not endear him to an author whose novels have a detective as a hero.

Whilst an emphasis on ‘civil society’ might have made some sense at the time of Tangentopoli (1992- 94), when there seemed to be a sharp divide between the corrupt politicians and the mass of the Italian population, the two-decade-long experience of the persistent consensus for Berlusconi should by now have destroyed such illusions. This evident attempt to play to the ‘anti-political’ gallery in order to win votes away from the Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement) of Beppe Grillo may well yet yield fewer dividends than a principled return to a more militant class-struggle politics (combined with a name with a clearer association with the labour movement) might have done7 l


1. See ‘Back into the centre of politics’ Weekly Worker February 6.

2. There had been 35 hours of debate and 123 votes on various clauses and amendments. The most bitter divisions occurred over an attempt to ensure gender parity in party lists by making it a legal requirement to alternate men and women, so that lists would be man-woman-man-woman or woman-man-woman-man, rather than, for exam­ple, merely having an equal number of both sexes. The official line of the PD was to support this, but Renzi was pretty half-hearted about it, knowing that Berlusconi opposed. Even some Forza Italia women were in favour and on a secret ballot this amendment was defeated, with the figures clearly indicating that a large number of PD deputies, presumably male ones, had voted against.

3. Since Renzi for some months prior to his capture of the premiership had regarded the Florentine mayoralty as something he could do in his spare time whilst ruthlessly pursuing national office, it is perhaps not surprising that he has such a flippant approach to the conflict of interest involved in undertaking two sets of responsibili­ties simultaneously.

4. Here I am referring to what used to be known as the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, the international tendency of which Socialist Resistance is the British section.

5. In the 1970s Paolo Flores d’Arcais was a leading member of the USFI’s Italian section and contributed an illuminating article on Italy’s ‘organic crisis’ to the New Left Review, but in more recent times he could be described as a sort of intransigently anti-Berlusconian radical liberal. His brother, Marcello Flores, is a historian who has produced important work on the history of the PCI amongst other topics.

6. I have seen an eloquent appeal to these two men from Tsipras himself on the internet, but have no idea if they have relented as a result of it.

7. It is probably worth remarking that the leftwing list centred around the PRC standing in the Livornese local elections, also taking place on May 25, has been given the label, Per il Lavoro (For Labour), and incorporates the hammer and sickle in its symbol. I assume the PRC may well have adopted similar tactics in other industrial cities where such local elections are taking place this year.