Behind the Turmoil in Italy

Against the Current, No. 48, January/February 1994

Jack Ceder

AN UNEXPECTED POLITICAL upheaval has occurred in Italy. To begin with, over half of the parliament members in the ruling coalition are under indictment for taking bribes. As ‘a consequence, an American-style winner-take-all electoral system will shortly replace the former proportional representation system. Moreover, the most powerful leader in the Christian Democrat party (DC) and seven-time premier, Giulio Andreotti, is under indictment for collusion with the Mafia in the murders of anti-mafia judges and journalists. The DC, which has dominated Italy since the end of the war, is now in shambles and its junior partner, the conservative Italian Socialist Party (Psi), has virtually disbanded.

What Happened?

To begin with, Italy has had an unrestricted proportional representation system (PR) in both houses of government under which a party getting even 17o of the national vote could obtain a parliamentary seat Although there were always ten or more parties having seats, the DC was the leading party. Its vote oscillated around 33% since the end of World War U. The DC ruled in coalition with other bourgeois parties, especially the PSI whose votes in recent years ranged between 10-15%.

Since coalition politics were necessary, Italian politics has been beset with incessant infighting over the considerable (because of heavy state presence in the economy) spoils of office, manifested in a constant reshuffling of premiers and cabinets. But the chaos and seeming instability was only superficial because the DC always ran the show, itself beholden to the true masters, Italian big business.

However, the near monopoly of the DC and its corrupt patronage system has proved to be an economic drain to the corporate rulers. Higher echelons of governmental bureaucracies are staffed with political hacks who are reshuffled regularly. There are little incentives for efficiency; incompetents have obstructed the introduction of computer technology in the state sector. For example, because the Italian mail service is notoriously slow, when tourists in Rome want to mail a postcard, they go to the Vatican, and save a week’s time.

Another example of state inefficiency is its unenforceable tax system. While employees and corporations pay taxes, small businesses and professionals manage to avoid them by reporting only a fraction of their income. My brother-in-law went, for instance, to a doctor and was given a bill for about $300. When he asked for a receipt, the doctor, fearing his tax evasion would be exposed, refused. In turn my brother-in-law refused to pay—and got the doctor’s services free. However, the doctor is now in jail, which is indicative of a more serious attempt to nail tax evaders.

Another source of economic loss is that four out of Italy’s twenty regions are dominated by gangster capitalists whose enterprises go tax free and who extort money from the small businesses through the protection racket (Although the Mafia is the generic name for organized crime, strictly speaking the Mafia only operates out of Sicily. The other regional crime syndicates have other names, like the Camorra in the Naples region of Campania).

Italian politics is notoriously corrupt Indeed it seems like a scandal of the U.S. Savings-and-Loan magnitude rocks Italy every six months. However, it is hard to compare corruption in Italy with that of the United States, because Italy has is a free press that exposes the corruption whereas here much corruption never sees the light of day. Nevertheless it is generally agreed that corruption has been a way of life in Italian politics.

Currently the primary source of corruption lies in the competition of businesses for governmental favors and contracts. Members of parliament take bribes in order to line their own pockets and build up their party machines. Although this happens in all capitalist countries, in Italy the extent is magnified by the economy’s large state sector, the number of parties feeding at the public trough, the domination of the DC and the fact that many conventional graft mechanisms are illegal. Parties are subsidized by the state and, while campaign contributions are allowed, lobbying is not.

But the driving force behinc the current crisis is the worldwide economic crisis, which has produced an – employment rate of 11%. In this crisis of profitability Italian capital has suffered disproportionally from the high cost of servicing its political servants. Last August the Italian bourgeois press was full of articles about other European capitalist spokesmen complaining about Italy. One complaint is that Italy comprises fully one-third of the total debt for all of twelve European Community nations. They also complain about the Italian welfare system. In an article on Italy The Economist recently extolled the virtues of a two-party system, declaring that what Italy really needed is a Thatcher to put its house in order.

Another factor in the breakup of the political system has been the end of the Cold War. Since 1945 anti-communism had been the metaphysical glue that kept the bourgeois parties in power. The demise of the communist bogeyman seems to have jolted much of the Italian public into less tolerance for political corruption. Anumber of TV shows are based upon letting the audience vent their anger at politicians. Indicted politicians can’t even walk on the streets without being spat upon and accosted by umbrella-wielding citizens.

The Historically Mayor Players

The DC: Since 1945 the DC has been the big businesses’ preferred party. It has based its electoral appeal on conservative Catholicism and anti-communism. As such it enjoyed the full backing of both the Vatican and Washington. Washington weaned its political and military leaders over the years, which helps to explain the Italian states’ subservience to U.S. foreign policy. In Sicily the DC is interlaced with the Mafia the same is true in three other regions.

Up till now the DC and the Vatican have always been able to protect the gangster capitalists from attacks by the rest of the political establishment But now that the Mafia wing of-the DC is in disrepute, the Vatican is distancing itself from the Mafia. For the first time ever the Pope has given more than lip service to attacking the Mafia. As a result the Mafia has allegedly retaliated by bombing several churches and assassinating antimafia priests.

A leading progressive DC leader, Tina Ariseirni, recently revealed an incident fifteen years ago in which the DC premier Aldo Morn sent her to Sicily to purge the Mafia from the DC machine. When she arrived Cardinal Ruffino made her kneel before him while he lectured heron how much the Mafia had done for the church. He “sent” her home, her mission failed.

The PSI: The PSI affords a good example of how political labels have little to do with politics. After World War II the PSI could have been considered a genuine left sodal democratic party. Over the years its socialist values have withered away. Commensurate with its gradual shedding of social democracy, it has been increasing funded by Italian capital. The degenerative process was also nurtured by the CIA who bought out PSI leaders in its anti-communist crusade. Now it can’t even be considered a liberal party—perhaps the closest U.S. analogy would be the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. Today the PSI bases its appeal on libertarian, anti-clerical values, the Italian party of yuppies.

The Partito Communista Italian (PCI): The PCI has evolved over the years into a social democratic party, abandoning any socialist vision of a different society. It thinks it can administer capitalism in the interests of the working class. Inrecent years it became an umbrella for—in American terms— liberals, social democrats, Stalinists and socialists.

The PCI was the number one party in North-Central Italy, the so-called Red Belt, consisting of the regions of Tuscany, Emilio-Romagna, Liguria, Umbria and Marche, which contain the cities of Florence, Bologna, Pisa, Genova and Perugia. In many cities and areas it had the absolute majority. Nationally the PCI received 30% of the vote. It had a strong base in the unions, supported by an estimated 50% of the workers.

The PCI took the occasion of the collapse of the Soviet Union to formally acknowledge its abandonment of socialism, changing its name to Partito Democxato di Sinistra (PDS). This precipitated a split, with the buJk of the PCI’s militants leaving  to form the Rifondazione Communista (RF).

The Catalysts

How did this political system crack up? With the end of the Cold War, the deepening of the recession, an increased public outcry against corruption and the increasing exasperation of big business it required only a spark to start the avalanche. Actually the two important ingredients were the existence of a free press and a relatively independent judicial system.

In Italy judges are chosen strictly on a merit system; they are never elected or appointed. Thus they are relatively free of political interference and able to conduct their own investigations. Judges had been investigating corruption for years, but whenever they began to get too close to the truth, the DC-PSI establishment successfully transferred the judges to the boondocks. In those cases where they touched the DC-Mafia nexus, they were simply assassinated.

But one obscure judge, Antonio Di Pietro, now a national hero, managed to start the avalanche. He uncovered one venal PSI politician, who had evicted his estranged wife. She took revenge by documented his thievery. In turn, he confessed and named others, starting a chain reaction in which politicians and capital-1st bribers were promised that they would not receive preventive detention if they named others.

As a result one-third of the parliament and one-half of the ruling coalition’s MPs are under indictment If the judicial budget were large enough, the figure would probably be closer to 100%. Many have been jailed, including one of my wife’s distant cousins, a slimy PSI politician. The basic form of the corruption consisted in contractors bribing politicians for state contracts—like build-mg the Milano subway or a section of a freeway.

One of the first and biggest heads to roll was that of Beftino Craxi, the longtime head of the PSI and former premier. Rumor has it that he has salted away over $100 million in his career of thievery and will be seeking political asylum in France where he has connections with weapons manufacturers and the PSF, the French Socialist Party. It is expected thatsome of the biggest political thieves will abscond with their loot to Brazil, which doesn’t have an extradition treaty with ltaly.

One unfortunate upshot in exposing massive corruption is that Italy has changed its proportional representation system to a winner-take-all-system, with the exception that one-fourth of the Senate seats are still based upon PR (100 seats out of the 1000 seats in the two combined houses). This appears tobe the classical example of throwing out the baby with the dirty wash. The electorate mistakenly bought the argument that the multiplicity of parties was the main culprit However the capitalist system remains and capitalists must compete for favors from the government, run by parties who accept the system, which makes corruption inevitable in some form or another.

A Process of Political Recomposition

During the last few months there have been several regional and city elections in which the DC and PSI have been demolished. New parties and alliances are in the process of emerging.

The new kid on the block is the Lega Nord (Northern League). It started out as a minor conservative regional party, espousing in racial terms, separation of the affluent north from the rest of Italy. The sudden collapse of support for the DC-PSI propelled it to becoming the number one party in the northern regions.

The Lèga has become the new darling of the corporate class. Former politicos of the PSI and other minor bourgeois parties are jumping on its bandwagon. The program that is emerging is one embodying a Reagan-Thatcher “revoluflon The aims are to 1) smash the DC patronage system; 2) break the back of the parasitical gangster capitalism in the south 3) rationalize the state bureaucracies; 4) privatize state enterprises; 5) cut back on the welfare state; 6) stop subsidizing the south. There are even hints that a Lega-dominated government would less apt to be subservient to the United States in foreign policy.

The French fascist leader Le Pen has given the Lega his blessings. Clearly racism is central to the Lega. This racism is that of affluent northerners toward the poor southerners as well as the immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe. This open expression of racism is a new phenomena in Italian politics—having been muffled in the past by the strong anti-racism of the Catholics and Communists.

The problem for the Lega is that although its racism gets it votes in the north, it doesn’t sell at all elsewhere. For example, the conservative Italo-American community, which has roots mostly in the south, has openly repudiated the Lega. If the Lega is to be the preferred party of big business it will have to mute its racism at least for the present.

Among those not joining the Lega bandwagon, two general alliances are emerging one based upon the PDS and the other upon the DC.

The PDS forms the core of a progressive alliance which embraces the RF and the Greens. It is projected to be dominant in the Red Belt It remains to be seen if the minority Reds and Greens can influence the PDS in its relentless march on the sell-out highway. However, since one-fourth of the senate seats are based upon PR, the Reds and Greens can test their support, perhaps exacting some concessions from the PDS. Historically the PCI had always prided themselves on its clean record in government. But now, as it sacrifices principle for “respectability,” PDS officials have been increasingly caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

The remaining pillar of the electoral triage would be a reincarnation of the DC, tentatively called the Popular Party. This would beavery crippled clone of the DC, with a weakened political machine and greatly diminished corporate support The forces behind this grouping are Catholic fundamentalists, the Vatican and the Mafia-bourgeoisie, not to mention the millions owing their jobs to the DC machine. The new DC is expected to dominate the south.

It appears that each of the three groups will become regionally supreme, with none able to achieve an absolute majority nationally. In other words it will be the same old political gridlock—but with three parties instead of rune or more. It will be Tweedledee, Tweedledum and Tweedledoo. No subset will be able to resolve Italy’s profitability crisis. The question is whether they will be able to forestall and frustrate any movements for real change.

On the margins there is another party that does not fit into the big three. The Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), a fascist party, is supported by about 6% of Italian voters. It may be capable of becoming the majority party in various areas in the south.

Outwardly the MSI is a respectable conservative party. Publicly (but not privately) it distances itself from the rightist thugs. Its electoral program sounds like that of our Republican party: emphasis on law and order, family values, homophobia, anti-feminist, antiabortion, pro-death penalty (the only party in Italy to do so), anti-immigrant, anti-communist and so on. As to be expected, the MSI has strong ties with, and support in, the military and intelligence apparatuses. But the MSI diverges from other conservative parties in its present lack of corporate support and its proud descendency from the Mussolini era. Perhaps they are hoping the time will come soon when the ruling class’ need for a Thatcher will evolve into the need for a Mussolini.

Regional Splintering

On November 21, municipal elections took place, involving one-quarter of the population. While the Lega held its ground and the PDS-led alliance grew significantly, the DC vote suffered another unexpected precipitous decline (sinking to 10% nationwide). It was the MSI that picked up most of the defecting DC electorate.

The mayoral races in Palermo, Naples and Rome are illustrative of the presently volatile and unpredictable situation. In Palermo the left candidate, a former DC progressive and anti-mafia activist, captured 75% of the vote while the DC received 13%. Traditionally the DC had received an absolute majority of the votes. In Naples the left candidate got 43% whereas the MSI candidate, Allesandra Mussolini, granddaughter of II Duce, received 31%. This wasn’t too surprising since the MSI, having a large lumpen proletariat following, has received 25% there in the recent past.

The real shocker occurred in Rome, where the fascist leader got an incredible 35.4% of the vote to the PDS/Green candidate’s 39.6% The DC candidate (in alliance with another bourgeois party) pulled 12.1%, the RF candidate received 7.1% while a porno queen running on the Love party ticket got .6%. In Rome’s recent past, the best the MSI ever got was 10% to the DC’s 35%.

In the runoff between the two top candidates on December 5 the left won both mayoralty races.

Apparently the MSI’s fear-mongering resonated with the disaffected DC voters, especially in Rome. This surprised everyone who assumed that the traditional Catholic opposition to the death penalty and racism, plus the memories of the war, would keep the DC conservative flock in the fold.

Now the splintering of the DC electorate from Rome southward casts the formerly expected three-way gridlock into doubt. It appears that a PDS-Ied alliance has a real chance of achieving an absolute majority in the next national elections.

[I wish to thank my wife, Maria, for her help in preparing this article as well as my main informant, Camillo G., a PCI veteran and former resistance fighter and Assessor in Venice, who has stayed in the PDS more for sentimental reasons than for others.]

January-February 1994, ATC 48