With enemies like this, who needs friends… the opposition in Italy
For years now, the joke has been that Berlusconi’s best allies are the centre left. Unfortunately, for years it has not been a joke – it’s true. Now that we are likely to have elections next spring, the question has become a very practical and urgent one not just for the centre-left but the whole democratic process.
In April 2008, after Gianni Alemanno won the Rome municipal elections for the centre-right, some of his supporters swarmed around the Campidoglio. The more crass greeted the victory with the fascist salute; others showed that parts of the right have a sense of humour. They raised placards saying “Veltroni – santo subito!” (“make Veltroni a saint immediately”) echoing the cries for immediate sainthood for John Paul II. Their reasons were clear enough; Veltroni founded the Democratic Party (PD) in October 2007 and organised primary elections for the leader. This undermined Prodi’s authority as prime minister; then he declared that the PD would stand for election alone, without coalition allies. That frightened off the weakest element of the then Prodi government, bringing down the government and provoking early elections at a moment when Berlusconi was riding high and the centre left was very unpopular. And finally, he put up Francesco Rutelli as candidate for mayor of Rome making it clear that the party and the people had no choice in the matter – except they did and elected Alemanno. In six months, he brought Prodi and the centre-left government down, removed Communists and Socialists from Parliament for the first time in 65 years and then gave Rome to the centre-right. The least they could do for him was sainthood.
Except now he has done more; he suggested last month that the centre-left should look outside the PD for a leader, “a foreign pope” was the metaphor used. All sorts of names were thrown up as a result; from Nichi Vendola, president of the Apulia regional government, much loved by the left, with charm and charisma, gay and Catholic, to Ferrari chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, a possible leader of the centre. This was yet another re-run of the battle between Veltroni and D’Alema as the present PD secretary, Pierluigi Bersani, is a D’Alemiano. The problem is that Veltroni and D’Alema have been bickering “since they wore shorts” as one commentator put it. Since then Veltroni has withdrawn the suggestion, but the damage was done. The centre-left showed its divisions once again.
They are no better when it comes to winning policy and position issues. Compromise is inevitable in politics and sometimes even admirable but the PD’s version always seems to come across as tired, old fashioned and unprincipled. In the never-ending story of Berlusconi trying to avoid his criminal trials coming to verdict, the PD immediately left the moral high ground and is seeking a solution which distinguishes the “political” from the “legal”. And this at a time when a growing section of the centre-right is tired of the Prime Minister’s squirming for impunity. They could fight for principle and political advantage at the same time but they don’t.
They did the same on the vital issue of the High Council of the Magistrature, (CSM or Consiglio Superiore della Magistratura), the judiciary’s self governing body which is crucial given the battle between Berlusconi and the judiciary. The vice president is in practice the voice of the CSM (the president is the President of the Republic who only has a ceremonial role) and this time was due to be held by an opposition appointee. Instead of fighting for a distingished and independent lawyer of which there were many possibilities, the PD settled for a centrist figure who had already helped in drafting one of Berlusconi immunity bills and after election immediately began coming to terms with the centre-right members of the CSM. Again, a loss of principle and position.
Winning elections needs three components: leadership, organisation and a programme. Strength in one suit can compensate weakness in the other two but the centre-left is weak in all three. Given the format of elections in most western democracies today, leadership is undoubtedly the most important. Even in parliamentary systems, election campaigns are in practice “presidential”. Despite some real differences in programmes between the Labour Party and the Tories, it was the Brown-Cameron contrast which counted. The first time presidential style debates emphasised the leadership factor.
In Italy, the combination of Berlusconi’s “entry onto the field” and then the change of electoral system meant that personality and leadership became essential in the political game. For almost 17 years Silvio Berlusconi has been the focus of Italian politics even when he was in opposition. No one denies his previous qualities of personality and leadership and his rapidly learnt ability to navigate political shoals. The opposition has had to take this into account and the only times that they were successful was with Romano Prodi who expressed the antithesis of Berlusconi’s qualities. Prodi was careful and plodding where Berlusconi is spontaneous and mercurial; Berlusconi vaunts his successful football club while Prodi rode his bicycle even to the top of serious alpine passes. Prodi was the professor who explained everything in lengthy and calm detail; Berlusconi produced the “contract with the Italians” in five bullet points. But Prodi won twice against Berlusconi.
Today, Prodi is not poised for a second comeback though the PD leader, Pierluigi Bersani, tried to launch a Nuovo Ulivo in August. It was as if by invoking the winning name of a past alliance, he could conjure up a new and successful formula. Instead it only brought on yawns. Bersani is a solid ex-Communist from Emilia who was a more than competent minister for development in Prodi’s last government; he is sharp and a good debater but does not have the flair that only Berlinguer and maybe Togliatti had among Communist and post-Communist leaders. Above all, he is marked as a D’Alemiano which means that half of his natural supporters do not fully trust him.
As for programmes, in the big metal workers’ demonstration on 16 October protesting the threatened FIAT plant transfers and government inaction, some PD leaders participated, others kept their distance showing once again a lack of clarity in what they stand for, left or centre, workers or management. They need both, of course, to win an election, but they seem unable to finesse their different elements.
On the last point, the organisation is still there, a tribute to the Italian Communist Party whose ghost is still supporting its successors 20 years on.
But it is not enough. Their only hope is the growing confusion on the other side but despite the increasing discontent with Berlusconi, he would still win an election held today. Even if he lost and the PD won, what would they do with victory? It is not an edifying spectacle.