Silvio Berlusconi trounced again

Toby Abse looks at the situation in Italy after the prime minster's humiliating defeat in last weekend's referenda

The referenda of June 12-13 represent a decisive defeat for prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. He has suffered a fourfold rejection, on two questions linked to water privatisation, on nuclear power and most importantly on the immunity from trial of government ministers.

The defeat is so decisive for two reasons. Firstly, it has come so soon after the May 2011 local elections, in which his centre-right coalition not only failed to mount a convincing challenge to the centre-left in important cities like Bologna and Turin in the first round, but lost in Milan, Naples and a large number of other major towns and cities, including Trieste, the Sardinian city of Cagliari and his former Piedmontese stronghold of Novara, in the run-off ballots of the second round. Secondly, a referendum defeat has much more significance than a local government setback for a regime that might be best characterised as ‘video Bonapartist’.

Berlusconi has always claimed to be the direct representative of the Italian people, regularly expressing his contempt for parliamentary intermediaries even at times when he had a secure majority, and until now he has never been clearly rebuffed in such a plebiscite. Of course, his claim in this respect - like many of his other claims, such as never having been found guilty in legal proceedings - involves a certain amount of bluff and distortion. Generally, he has gained his victories in previous referenda - on such issues as in-vitro fertilisation, electoral laws and job security - through the failure of his opponents to reach the requisite 50% quorum rather than because he could count on a majority of those who actually voted to support his position - only in 1995 did he actually win a referendum (on a 57% turnout), when his control of Italian television was under attack.

Nonetheless, even if he has made a rather habitual and cynical use of calls to abstention when he has feared a defeat, he has equally frequently been able to claim his opponents were a factious or elitist minority linked to magistrates, communists or Carlo De Benedetti, the proprietor of Berlusconi’s rival Repubblica-Espresso press combine, and thus unrepresentative of the Italian people as a whole. This time the rejection was clear enough - most significantly on the ‘legitimate impediment’, the provision that allowed him to automatically avoid court appearances on the grounds that he was busy with cabinet meetings or other official business linked to his prime ministerial office, ranging from meeting foreign heads of state to opening motorways.

Moreover, as a result of his instructions to his supporters to abstain, he himself has ensured that the percentage achieved by his opponents was absolutely overwhelming (95.84% on water privatisation, 96.32% on selling water to consumers at a profit, 94.75% on nuclear power and 95.15% on the ‘legitimate impediment’) and indeed approaches those normally associated with a rigged plebiscite - although unlike 2006, when he made allegations of fraud following his very narrow defeat in a general election, even Berlusconi is unlikely to make spurious claims about ballot-rigging this time.

Even before his rather unexpected defeat in the local elections, Berlusconi had been fearful of the outcome of these referenda. Hence the government’s decision early on not to hold them on the same day as the first round of the local elections, which would have been the most obvious, and economical, course to have taken. He has assumed ever since the Japanese earthquake and the consequent Fukushima nuclear accident that no popular consultation on the question of civil nuclear power could produce what he would regard as a desirable outcome - a perfectly rational assumption, given the outcome of the earlier 1987 referendum on nuclear power in Italy. Then the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the USSR played a decisive part in a massive increase in popular support for the anti-nuclear cause, which had previously been associated with activists on the fringes of Italian politics like Democrazia Proletaria and the Radical Party rather than any of the major parties.

Berlusconi had also assumed - perhaps less rationally - that the nuclear question was the only one of the four referenda that would guarantee a large turnout, since the vast majority of those who came to the polling stations to vote on one issue would probably cast their ballots on the other three whilst they were there. In the event, the percentage voting on the nuclear question was marginally lower than on water profits and privatisation, even if it just exceeded that on the ‘legitimate impediment’. But the assumption that almost everybody who voted on one question would vote on the other three was entirely correct - the turnout on all was almost identical at just over 57%.

Nuclear reactionaries

Whilst Berlusconi’s strategy in relation to the referenda in general was to encourage abstentionism, when it came to the nuclear power stations, he sought to prevent the referendum from taking place by passing a law imposing a year’s moratorium on the plans for their revival (but not definitively ruling out the nuclear option), which he claimed superseded the legislation in favour of the nuclear programme which the referendum’s promoters sought to repeal.

This led to a couple of dramatic legal battles in the weeks between the second round of the local elections and the referenda. The Italian court of appeal (Cassazione) allowed the referendum to proceed with a last-minute change in the wording of the question and when Berlusconi got the Italian equivalent of the official solicitor to appeal to the constitutional court (the Consulta) days before the referenda were due to take place, it backed Cassazione, dashing his hopes that a few centre-right judges could be counted on to lobby their colleagues in his favour. Berlusconi had not helped himself in his attempts to persuade the judges that the moratorium amounted to a repeal of the earlier law when he had rather foolishly boasted to president Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who was anxious to win contracts for French nuclear firms, that the moratorium was just a trick to give Italian public opinion a chance to cool down after Fukushima.

Apart from legislative and judicial manoeuvring on the nuclear question, Berlusconi shamelessly used his control over the television channels to try and minimise turnout in the referenda, ensuring that five of the six main channels (the sole exception being the leftish and rather intellectual RAI 3 - once the enclave of the Partito Comunista Italiano) barely mentioned that the referenda were due to take place until the last week or so. Although this was so blatant that some of the channels were eventually fined for breaching the electoral code on the issue by the rather toothless authority that supposedly monitors Italian TV, such a slap on the wrist was the least of the prime minister’s worries.

Berlusconi’s overwhelming referendum defeat marks the culmination of a disastrous month, in which he presided over the loss of Milan in the local elections, which had been held by the right since 1993. Milan is his own home town, where he made his first fortune in construction and whose leading football team, AC Milan, is his personal possession. But the mayoralty went to Giuliano Pisapia, a candidate of the centre-left coalition. Although Pisapia’s political history was on the far left, he is now a member of Nichi Vendola’s Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertà (Left, Ecology and Freedom) rather than the social democratic Partito Democratico (Democratic Party), which had somewhat reluctantly endorsed his candidature after its own favoured candidate had been defeated in a primary amongst centre-left supporters. Pisapia’s 55%-45% victory over sitting mayor Letizia Moratti cannot even be dismissed as a narrow outcome arising from the personal or political weaknesses of the candidate - the 10% margin indicated that a substantial proportion of the Milanese electorate had turned against Berlusconi himself, who had needlessly chosen to head the list of council candidates associated with Moratti.

It is also worth stressing the even more humiliating percentage achieved by Berlusconi’s candidate in Naples, where in the second round of the mayoral contest about two thirds (65.4% to be exact) of the votes went to a former prosecuting magistrate - Luigi de Magistris - who used to specialise in political corruption cases and who is a member of Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values), the party led by Berlusconi’s arch enemy, Antonio Di Pietro. Di Pietro first came to prominence in the Clean Hands investigation of political corruption largely associated with Berlusconi’s prime political patron in the 1980s, Bettino Craxi. Berlusconi’s decision to run Gianni Lettieri - a close political ally of the notorious Nicola Cosentino, whom magistrates have linked to the Camorra criminal mafia - was an appalling political misjudgement, which played straight into de Magistris’s hands, enabling him to overtake a very feeble Partito Democratico candidate in the first round and focus the whole contest on questions of crime and corruption rather than more mundane issues about the nuances of centre-left and centre-right approaches to running the council.

Fair means or foul

Despite the predictable calls for his resignation coming from Partito Democratico leader Pierluigi Bersani and other opposition politicians, Berlusconi will not go quickly or quietly, provided he maintains a majority in parliament by fair means or foul. He has two years left before he has to face a general election.

Whilst Berlusconi won the 2008 national poll with a comfortable majority, the fusion of his personal creation, Forza Italia, with the ‘post-fascist’ Alleanza Nazionale ended in at least partial failure. Amidst the increasing stench of sleaze and corruption surrounding Berlusconi and his government, a group of largely former AN deputies led by Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of the chamber of deputies, broke away to form Futura e Libertà per l’Italia (Future and Freedom for Italy). However, Berlusconi survived Fini’s botched attempt to bring him down in parliament in December 2010 by cobbling together a group of deputies from other parties, who have subsequently adopted the totally ludicrous name of ‘the Responsabili’.

This episode caused outrage - reflected both in scuffles in parliament and full-scale rioting on the streets of Rome - since a handful of these deputies had actually been elected on the lists of the Partito Democratico and the populist, anti-corruption Italia dei Valori rather than for one of the formations of the right. It is widely believed that Berlusconi or his associates gave considerable monetary incentives to these new-found allies and some of them have subsequently obtained minor ministerial offices (whilst others continue to demand them). Some of these shady characters had already changed party on more than one occasion and if their reward in December took the form of a lump sum in cash of the kind that female participants in Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties regularly received rather than a longer-term promise of a secure job or pension, their continuing loyalty cannot be guaranteed.

If we leave to one side the question of the future reliability of the Responsabili, the other problem that Berlusconi faces in parliament is whether Umberto Bossi and the Lega Nord (Northern League) will stick with him until the bitter end, if it means an electoral wipe-out in two years’ time that could prove the death knell of these regionalists. Bossi is now a shadow of his old self - with his once deafening voice on greatly reduced power since his stroke some years ago. The local elections were a disaster for the Lega as well as for Berlusconi - perhaps the politics of Islamophobia and anti-gypsy racism no longer convince many former Lega voters increasingly aware that Italy’s economic stagnation is accompanied by a growing gap between rich and poor.

The pattern of the 2010 regional elections, in which the Lega had picked up votes at Berlusconi’s expense, so that the overall strength of the centre-right coalition remained more or less constant, but the internal balance of forces moved in Bossi’s favour, has been broken. A survey of 40 key northern municipalities cited by the political scientist Ilvo Diamanti demonstrates that the Lega’s vote has gone down from 15.6% in 2010 to 10.9% in 2011, even if Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (People of Freedom) fell more dramatically - from 30.7% to 22.5% (La Repubblica June 1). This meant that Bossi did not feel sufficiently confident to turn on Berlusconi at the end of May in the immediate aftermath of the local elections and joined him in a self-destructive call for abstentionism in the referenda, from which some of the other, more wily, Lega politicians distanced themselves, primarily by discovering an aversion to water privatisation.

However, Bossi may now calculate that a few losses at an early general election would be better than more serious ones in 2013 and may believe that if he broke with Berlusconi in advance of such an election and ran independently of the rest of the centre-right - as he did in 1996, when he branded Berlusconi a mafioso and successor to the German kaiser - the party might score well, even if it deprived itself of the rich rewards of ministerial office that its leading figures have become so accustomed to, despite their continuing ritual denunciations of the Italian state.

The reiterated claims addressed to the Lega’s base that only Berlusconi can deliver the Lega’s long-awaited federalist reforms have worn rather thin, as it becomes increasingly doubtful whether the premier has any concerns beyond his own survival, now that his efforts to buy Confindustria’s continued support with nuclear power and water privatisation have proved such a boomerang. The Lega’s rank and file have clearly had enough of Silvio, as every phone-in programme on Radio Padania demonstrates: given their hatred of Arabs and Muslims, his consorting with an under-age Moroccan prostitute may well have been the last straw.

Maybe only the incompetence and abject cowardice of much of Italy’s centre-left can save Berlusconi or any chosen successor he might anoint in a bid to ensure his protection from the possibility of any legal or financial penalties arising from his numerous ongoing trials, now that recent events in North Africa have ruled out any possibility of following his mentor, Craxi, into gilded exile in Tunisia. Whilst Bersani’s Partito Democratico remains by far the largest force amongst the opposition parties, his leadership has been widely judged to be lacklustre and its programme remains as vague as ever. Moreover, whatever Bersani’s weaknesses may be, he shows a little more common sense than his perpetual critic, Massimo D’Alema, who remains enamoured of alliances with the Christian Democratic Unione di Centro (for all its Sicilian links with the Mafia and ultra-conservative positions on the rights of women and gays) rather than forces to the PD’s left.

Dismal left

The greatest mayoral victories were won not by the PD, but by Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà in Milan and Italia dei Valori in Naples. SEL consists for the most part of the old right wing of Rifondazione Comunista, which refused to accept Paolo Ferrero’s congress victory in the wake of the party’s electoral defeat in 2008, with the addition of some refugees from the left wing of the Verdi (Greens), a party which seems intent on throwing off its ‘radical left’ tag and positioning itself nearer the centre of the political spectrum like its more electorally successful German and French counterparts.

SEL is to the left of the PD, but, unlike Ferrero’s Rifondazione, which shifted further to the left once it lost representation at national and European level, SEL has not abandoned any wish to join governmental coalitions at the national level. However, it certainly seems to have abandoned any claim to be part of the communist tradition, often promoting the virtues of the Scandinavian ‘social democratic model’. It is also somewhat dangerously centred on one individual, Nichi Vendola, the president of the Apulian region, just as Italia dei Valori is centred on Antonio Di Pietro.

Whilst Vendola and Di Pietro seem, as far as one can judge, to have a great deal of personal integrity, whatever their political weaknesses, after years of personality-driven politics on the right, the growth of a kind of mirror image of the old Forza Italia in the form of an anti-Berlusconian populism centred on rival charismatic individuals is a somewhat negative trend. Nonetheless, even if left populism has to some degree replaced right populism, there seem some encouraging signs that the 17-year-long domination of Italian politics by television ownership, and the hideously distorted news bulletins it has produced, may at last be coming to an end, despite the abject failure of centre-left governments in both 1996-2001 and 2006-08 to do anything about it.

The internet has clearly played some role in the mobilisation of the younger generation against Berlusconi for both the mayoral elections and the referenda - Berlusconi has not been in a position to control either Facebook or Twitter, despite an attempt at an almost Chinese-style clampdown a year or two ago, when Facebook groups were formed praising the man who hit him with a model of Milan cathedral, and he has been the subject of much mockery on YouTube. Needless to say, the amount of foreign internet material about Berlusconi and Rubygate has made a mockery of his strenuous attempts to keep the scandal off the television news bulletins, eroding the Berlusconian consensus amongst the generally apolitical and apathetic. More positively, the anti-Berlusconi Popolo Viola was in a position to organise its initial successful mass demonstration by using Facebook and text-messaging, even it is likely that face-to-face contact has subsequently played a role in this social movement.

It is far from clear whether the PD, SEL and the IdV will stick together long enough to fight a common general election campaign. Whilst the Federazione della Sinistra (essentially Rifondazione and the Party of Italian Communists) maintained a relatively good level of support at the local elections - only slightly lower than SEL in most places - the most vigorous opposition on the far left in recent times has come from the FIOM metalworkers’ union rather than the communist parties.

In short, it would be wrong to assume that the downfall of Silvio Berlusconi will open the floodgates to any rapid shift to the left, even if the overwhelming popular rejection of nuclear power and water privatisation shows that there is a potential electorate for a party that combats neoliberalism in a way that the PD never has and never will.