WeeklyWorker

20.06.2013
Beppe Grillo: bury parliament

Italy: Populists in disarray

Why do some on the British left see Beppe Grillo’s party as a kind of model? Toby Abse reports on the fallout following Italy’s local elections

The centre-left coalition dominated by the Partito Democratico (PD) won all 11 of the second-round run-off mayoral ballots held on June 9-10 in the provincial capitals where no candidate had got over 50% in the first ballot two weeks earlier. Since the centre-left won five such cities outright on the first ballot, this gives it an overall score of 16-0 against the centre-right.

Six of these cities, including Rome, had previously been held by the centre-right, so the outcome clearly represents a defeat for Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL) and for Roberto Maroni’s Lega Nord, which had held the Venetian city of Treviso for 19 years. The centre-right also did badly in the first round of the Sicilian elections - also held on June 9-10 - with the PdL candidate only obtaining 36.6% in Catania, far behind the victorious Enzo Bianco of the ex-‘official communist’-dominated PD. This poor showing probably heralds further fragmentation in the PdL and has unleashed more internecine strife in the Lega - phenomena which will be discussed below.

The local elections also marked a very serious defeat for Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), which, as I pointed out in my last article,1 did not get into a single one of the run-offs in the major population centres on the Italian mainland. In the event it only won two very minor municipalities on the second ballot. In the Sicilian local elections M5S again saw its vote collapse in all four the major cities being contested - for example, in Catania it fell from 31.9% in last year’s regional election to 4% in the municipal contest, while in Syracuse and Messina the drop was worse still. Even in Ragusa the M5S list vote fell from 39.3% to 10.3%, although the M5S mayoral candidate, Federico Piccitto, who got a personal vote of 15.6%, did make it to the second round.

M5S ‘transparency’

Grillo’s June 7 rant, in which he described parliament as “a stinking tomb” which “we will bury” - a blog posting which many on both the centre-left and centre-right immediately compared with some of Mussolini’s speeches, with one PdL politician even drawing parallels with Hitler and the Reichstag fire - probably made a major contribution to this further defeat in Sicily. Whilst Grillo’s latest attack on parliament based itself on the fact that the Pig Law (Porcellum) - the electoral system enacted by Berlusconi’s coalition in 2005 - had recently been declared unconstitutional by the courts, far from being an isolated outburst, it fitted neatly into a previous pattern of four stridently anti-parliamentary pronouncements between May 9 and June 1, whose highlights were quoted in La Repubblica on June 8.

After the Sicilian result, M5S senator Adele Gambaro told Sky’s Italian television channel: “We are paying for the tone and communication of Grillo, his threatening posts, above all those against parliament … I invite him to write less and observe more. The Movimento’s problem is Beppe Grillo.” Within hours Grillo had put a post on his blog inciting M5S supporters against Gambaro and then, without waiting for the outcome of the ‘referendum’ he called on her to withdraw her remarks and demanded her summary expulsion in a second post.

As a result, a joint session of the M5S parliamentary groups (Senate and Chamber of Deputies) met within days and voted to expel Gambaro by 79 votes to 42, with nine abstentions.2 This closed session had been preceded by a discussion of the Senate group with live streaming, which La Repubblica (June 18) described as “an inquisition”. Doubtless aware of the appalling impression they were making on the viewing public, Gambaro’s persecutors gained a 12-vote majority for a motion to hold the final showdown behind closed doors - and in the absence of the accused, who was told to leave after she had made an opening statement. So much for M5S’s concern for transparency.

This expulsion comes soon after the decision of the two Taranto M5S parliamentarians, Alessandro Furnari and Vincenza Labriola, to leave the movement over differences regarding the line on the Ilva steel works in their own city. This led to them being denounced by Grillo and his hard-core loyalists as chronic absentees from parliamentary sessions who were primarily concerned with getting round M5S rules on parliamentary salaries and expenses. This witch-hunt aroused the distaste of the more independently minded members of M5S’s parliamentary groups, who felt that, whether or not they agreed with their politics, the two dissidents were quite hard-working and sincere.

It is worth emphasising that Gambaro was not the first M5S parliamentarian to be expelled. The first parliamentary expulsion was that of the Marino Mastrangeli - merely for participating in television talk shows rather than for any specific view expressed in the media.3 There is every likelihood that the defections and expulsions from M5S will increase, as the more rational section of its parliamentary delegation becomes increasingly aware that the totally intransigent line adopted by Grillo and his internet guru and close advisor, Gianroberto Casaleggio, are alienating most of those who voted for MSS in February; no doubt Grillo and Casaleggio will respond by increasing the dose of authoritarianism rather than listening to any criticism and modifying the line accordingly. In the light of the total lack of internal democracy within M5S, it is hard to understand why sections of the British left involved within Left Unity see it as any kind of model.4

Far-right rumbles

In the most significant of the recent contests, in Rome, the PD’s Ignazio Marino, who is a bit of a maverick on the left of the party, gained an overwhelming victory over the sitting mayor, the PdL’s Gianni Alemanno. Alemanno, already notorious five years ago because of his youthful involvement with the most extreme wing of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), had alienated the middle ground by a series of appointments to council jobs of manifestly incompetent or unqualified candidates, often with a background in neo-fascist terrorism or at least low-level thuggery.

Here, as elsewhere, the turnout was low - 45.5% compared with the already low 52.8% in the first round.5 Nonetheless, despite Marino’s call for restraint in victory, his supporters - in particular those in or close to the soft-left Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà (SEL) - went to the Campodoglio and sang the partisan anthem, ‘Bella ciao’, in an effort to wipe out the memory of the occasion five years earlier in precisely the same location. In 2008 Alemanno had been accorded numerous Roman salutes by a crowd of his supporters, who were only to eager to chant fascist slogans in a notorious scene that was picked up by newspapers and television channels all over the world.

Alemanno and his political associates seem to blame his defeat on the submersion of the political tradition originating in the old MSI within Berlusconi’s PdL. On June 11, just a day after the great defeat, there was a gathering of a number of important figures who had been former members of the ‘post-fascist’ Alleanza Nazionale and in most instances, earlier on in their careers, of the neo-fascist MSI in the offices of a foundation called Della Libertà Per il Bene Comune (Liberty for the Common Good), organised by the former minister Altero Matteoli. Apart from Alemanno, this assembly even included the ‘most faithful’ Berlusconiano, Maurizio Gasparri. Whilst some were saying it was too early to decide whether to leave the PdL, Ignazio La Russa, who had already deserted the PdL for the Fratelli d’Italia6 before the general election, is clearly trying to unite the ‘post-fascist’ right outside the PdL.

Whilst La Russa, striking an intellectual pose that ill accords with his street-fighting past, referred to “the cultural model of Italian thought”,7 others rather more pragmatically claimed the project was aimed at the moderate Catholic electorate who had become disillusioned with Grillo. There seem to be some contact between this group and both the more unrepentant neo-fascist, Francesco Storace, and, somewhat strangely, Giulio Tremonti, Berlusconi’s former finance minister. Tremonti was previously closer to the Lega Nord than to the ‘post-fascists’, but is increasingly autarkic in his economic outlook and on very bad terms with his former boss as a result of disagreements on economic policy in 2011.

As for the Lega Nord, it has been plunged into internecine feuding by its poor results, particularly the disaster in Treviso. It is now clear that the Lega’s next national (or, as it prefers to call it, ‘federal’) congress will take place rather earlier than originally anticipated: the date has now been set for February 2014. Former leader Umberto Bossi is threatening to challenge the incumbent, Roberto Maroni, and attempt to regain the top job. In practice this seems unlikely, given Bossi’s age, poor health and the discredit into which he fell as a result of his involvement in financial scandals. Flavio Tosi, the mayor of Verona and secretary of the Liga Veneta,8 is facing calls for his resignation as a result of the Treviso result, but has counter-attacked by stressing the equally poor results attained in the last year of Bossi’s dominance of the organisation.

Trials

Berlusconi is obviously far from pleased with the election results. Whilst his most ardent flatterers tell him that the low vote for the PdL was a product of his own lack of involvement in the day-to-day running of the campaign, it is doubtful that even he really believes that. There is much talk of abandoning the unsuccessful fusion involved in the PdL, dumping most of the remaining ‘post-fascists’ and returning to the old name of Forza Italia, a brand that the tycoon associates with his early electoral successes.

However, Berlusconi’s principal preoccupation is not with electoral politics, but with the outcome of his own trials. Here things seem to be looking bleak: a verdict is expected on June 24 in the ‘Ruby case’ about his alleged involvement with an under-age prostitute; and before that, on June 19, a judgement from the constitutional court is likely concerning the fraud case for which he has already been convicted. This will rule on whether the magistrates’ decision to reject some of Berlusconi’s attempts at seeking postponements by claiming a “legitimate impediment” due to his prime ministerial or parliamentarian duties were an indication of bias against him.

His presumption is that, if the constitutional court decides against him on this rather technical issue, the supreme court is unlikely to reverse the verdict in the fraud case when it comes before them - most probably in the autumn. Whilst in practice he is unlikely to have to serve the prison sentence upheld by the lower courts, the possibility of disqualification from public office is a lot more worrying.

Moreover, on June 26, there will be a parliamentary debate about whether he is ineligible for elected office. In fact he is obviously ineligible under Law 361 passed in 1957 long before his rise to economic, let alone political, prominence. This bars anybody whose business enjoys state contracts or concessions granted by the state from parliament. Since the state granted him his rights to the television frequencies his channels enjoy, he ought to be covered by it. However, the matter has come up in parliament on a number of occasions since 1994 and each time the issue has been decided in his favour. In the past he succeeded in claiming he was no longer in control of Fininvest/Mediaset media empire, but the reasoning behind the recent court verdicts in the fraud case has, rightly, treated this as absurd.

Nonetheless, it is unlikely that the PD as a whole, as distinct from some individual PD parliamentarians, will suddenly turn on him: the episode involving the 101 traitors who refused to vote for Prodi in a secret ballot during the presidential contest in April should serve as an indication of how many private supporters he has in the PD’s ranks.

Parliamentary office is a useful protection against any risk of immediate incarceration and therefore Berlusconi is anxious to hold onto it. At one stage, he seemed hopeful of gaining permanent judicial immunity by being appointed a life senator, but president Giorgio Napolitano has recently let it be known that his intention is to fill the two vacant life senator slots with non-political appointees, reverting in effect to the original purpose of this office.

Berlusconi’s dream of escaping from his dilemma by bringing down the coalition, calling a general election, being returned as prime minister and daring the courts to do their worst seems less credible after the local elections, even if opinion polls give the PdL a somewhat higher score in a hypothetical general election than it managed to obtain in the real local ones.

Notes

1. ‘Grillo’s populism exposedWeekly Worker June 6.

2. There were also 30 absentees, some of whom had been present at the start, but appear to have walked out of the meeting.

3. This had a precedent in the earlier summary expulsion of the former M5S Bologna councillor, Federica Salsi, also for appearing on a television talk show.

4. See, for instance, Dave Kellaway’s article in the latest issue of Socialist Resistance: http://socialistresistance.org/5127/what-we-can-learn-from-beppe-grillo-and-what-we-cant.

5. This suggests that the claim by some commentators, that the poor first-round turnout resulted from the distraction of a local derby between the capital’s two football teams, Lazio and Roma, was ill-founded. Moreover, given the extreme rightwing and anti-Semitic inclinations of the two teams’ most fervent football supporters, the so-called Ultras, who recently mounted a joint attack on visiting Tottenham fans, one might have expected a greater turnout for Alemanno in the second round, had the match really led them to abstain on the first occasion.

6. A party formed by those who split from the PdL with the tacit approval of Berlusconi.

7. La Repubblica June 12.

8. The use of ‘Liga’ rather than ‘Lega’ consciously stresses the difference between the Venetian dialect and the Lombard one.