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9-08-2015, 23:48

PROGRESS DESPITE POLITICS

In Italy, the protest and turbulence of 1968 were not confined to student groups or to a rebellion of youth, but spawned in their aftermath an upsurge in the militancy of the industrial workers. The divisions and weaknesses of the trade union movement were overcome by local bargaining and by the development of factory organisations – the factory councils. The Marxist student-protest movement struck real roots among the workers, unlike in West Germany and France, where protesting students met with little sympathy from working people, whose taxes gave students time for their sit-ins and endless debates; in Britain, student protest and influence were negligible outside the universities, prompting tolerant amusement or perhaps criticism of the authorities for allowing such disruption. In Italy the protests and the breakdown of order were far more serious. The ‘hot autumn’ of 1969 saw the spread of many strikes, supporting demands for higher pay and better working conditions. The Italian people could no longer be easily led; there was a loss of respect for institutions and for the political leadership that extended through all parties and traditions. Labour legislation the following year, in 1970, gave the trade unionist more power. The Italian economy began to suffer from characteristic stress: inflation took off in the mid-1970s; the sudden increase in oil costs hit the Italian economy hard; workers’ wages outpaced productivity; the agricultural south lagged ever more behind the industrial north. The expansion of the Italian economy slowed. Although the average annual growth in GNP in the 1970s still exceeded 3 per cent, it gyrated wildly from year to year. The economic upheavals and the social ferment were reflected in the instability of governments from 1968 to 1976. The Christian Democrats hardly changed in electoral strength, but internal divisions and the continued political jockeying among coalition partners, who agreed on little beyond the need to keep the communists out, produced one crisis government after another. The trend was to form centre-left alignments, and the contemporary legislation reflected this, as did the distancing of politics from the demands of the Church, as Italy became increasingly secularised. In 1970 a civil divorce law finally passed through parliament. Effective implementation, however, required a referendum. The Church continued to oppose divorce vehemently, and so did the leadership of the Christian Democrats, but when the referendum was finally held in 1974 a majority of the Italian population backed divorce. Women’s rights too gradually made headway in Italy in the 1970s and the 1980s, as elsewhere in the Western world. And youth gained more influence, with the voting age reduced from twenty-one to eighteen in 1974. In another attempted reform of the Italian political landscape, decentralisation and regional autonomy were taken further. The first regional elections of 1970 brought only limited progress; they nevertheless made possible communist par communists into central government. The Communist Party provided comparatively efficient administration in the ‘red’ central regions of Emilia Romagna, Umbria and Tuscany, when contrasted with the corruption of the other parties. The communist response to welfare and environmental needs spurred the Christian Democrats and other parties to compete on these issues. But political bargaining and central power in Rome nevertheless predominate, inhibiting the development of genuine regional autonomy as intended by the Italian constitution. What the regional system has not achieved is a levelling out between the wealthiest and the poorest parts of Italy. In 1978 against a gross national product per head for Italy as a whole of 100, the poorest region – Calabria in the southern toe – achieved only just over half the average (53) and the wealthiest – the Val d’Aosta in the north-west corner three times as much (157), while industrial northern Italy has more than twice the GNP of the south. Italy remains divided. There is a darker side to recent Italian history. The grass-roots political militancy produced a fanatical extremist element, small in number but great in their impact because of the ruthless terrorist tactics they employed; the best known were the Red Brigades. Bombs were set off in railway trains in Milan, in Bologna and elsewhere, with considerable loss of life. Their purpose was to destroy the social and democratic political structure. The most spectacular Red Brigade terrorist action was the March 1978 kidnapping of Aldo Moro, the leader of the Christian Democratic Party, when he was on his way to parliament. The terrorists demanded the release from prison of thirteen of their companions. The government held firm, despite heart-rending messages from Moro. Eight weeks later Moro’s corpse was left in the trunk of a car in the centre of Rome. The general revulsion was so great that it strengthened rather than weakened Italian democracy. But terrorism continued, reaching a horrific climax in August 1980 when bombs were set off in Bologna railway station, which was crowded with tourists. Eighty-four people were killed. Italy also experienced common West European problems – it was no longer backward, a nation apart. For a long time Italians had had to emigrate to more prosperous countries to find work. Now Africans were coming to Italy, and, as in the rest of Western Europe, the stream of immigrants – often performing menial functions for poor pay which Italians no longer wished to take on – created multi-ethnic communities in the cities with their attendant problems of exploitation, discrimination, poverty, crime and tension. At the general election of 1976 the Communist Party, now led by Enrico Berlinguer, hoped to overtake the Christian Democrats, since Berlinguer’s open defiance of Moscow and his leading role in the rise of Eurocommunism had enhanced the party’s standing. It came close to succeeding. The communists demanded full acceptance within the political system, particularly inclusion in a government of national unity. They were supported by parties of the left. Italy’s NATO partners were thoroughly alarmed and warned the Christian Democratic leadership against such a step. To avert the danger that no government would be found, that Italy would be virtually ungovernable because the Christian Democrats could form no coalition with the non-communist left which would give them a majority, agreement was reached with the communists in 1976 that they would support a minority Christian Democrat government in return for consultation. This involvement of the communists in the government of the country, which was called the ‘historic compromise’, came to an end after the 1979 election, when the Christian Democrats formed a new coalition government with the non-communist left. Widespread corruption and influence-peddling continues to mar the workings of Italian democracy. Links between Christian Democrats and the Mafia in Sicily have proved highly embarrassing to the party. The scandal of the freemason lodge known as P2, which broke in 1981, was both alarming and sensational. The lodge formed a secret society of nearly 1,000 members drawn from political, administrative and military elites, including members of the government and extending to links with high finance and the criminal underworld. Later investigation uncovered another murky secret underground organisation called Operation Gladio. It was originally set up early in the Cold War as a secret military group to move into action to counter a communist takeover of Italy. Its functioning was known to successive Italian prime ministers, including Giulio Andreotti, and revelations by the judiciary in 1990 caused the ruling political elite considerable embarrassment. It seems to have become an extreme-right terrorist organisation which attempted to incite anti-left reactions. It was rumoured that Gladio was responsible for a number of bombings in the 1970s and 1980s, including the explosion at Bologna railway station. The theory was that Gladio intended thereby to undermine the left, whose terrorists were blamed for the outrages. If so, Gladio was as much out of control as the Red Brigades. What is clear is that Gladio belonged to the unacceptable side of Italian politics. Yet it was a healthy sign that there were other politicians, civil servants and men with responsibilities in the regions who were willing to bring corruption to light. The mass trials of Mafiosi in Palermo in the mid-1980s attested to their courage and determination. The fight against corruption had not been won, but at least it was being waged. With a period of political stability, reinforced by the financial reforms of Bettino Craxi, the first Socialist to become prime minister, which he achieved in 1983 with majority Christian Democrat backing, the Italian economy was nursed back to better health. Inflation fell to an acceptable 5 per cent and unemployment fell too. But the fundamental problems of Italy remained. The north–south gap was increasing; northern industry was geared to, and competitive within, Western Europe; the regions south of Rome, despite thirty years of development aid, remained backward and uncompetitive, with a few remarkable exceptions. The Abruzzo region, west of Rome, with a population of 1.2 million, was no longer tied to poor farming, but had developed modern industry and tourism. Was that a harbinger of things to come? There was little sign of this in Calabria, Sicily or Sardinia. Twenty million Italians lived in the south in the early 1990s; one in five was unemployed. Thirty-six million Italians lived in the northern half, where about one in fourteen was unemployed and standards of living were almost twice as high. As Western Europe integrated in the 1990s, the south could be left increasingly behind. If Italian government remained unstable – and the auguries were not good – the mismanagement of public resources, the growth of the huge public debt and the inefficiency of an army of bureaucrats would carry on unimpeded, and interest groups would continue to be paid off from state funds. It was a considerable burden, mainly carried by the efficient, large-scale private industry of the north. Without political reform, all these problems would intensify. Craxi managed to remain in office until August 1987, just short of an unprecedented four years. In the election held that month he slightly increased his percentage of the vote at the expense of the Christian Democrats, who nonetheless gained twice as many votes as the Socialists. The alliance of the Socialists and Christian Democrats under the premiership of Craxi had been one of pure electoral convenience rather than common aims or mutual trust. It was replaced by an uneasy five-party coalition headed by a Christian Democrat and including Craxi’s Socialists. March 1988 saw another administration formed by a Christian Democratic premier in increasingly uneasy partnership with Craxi. This administration succeeded in passing the long-overdue abolition of secret voting in the Chamber on most issues. When in March 1989, Craxi withdrew his party from the coalition, the Christian Democrat prime minister resigned. It took nine weeks to find a new premier. In July 1989, the veteran politician Giulio Andreotti became prime minister for the sixth time, leading the forty-ninth post-war administration, yet another five-party coalition, including Craxi’s Socialists. Thus the stability of government continued to rest on the cooperation of the Christian Democrats and Socialists, which allowed Craxi pretty much to name his conditions. A feature of Italian politics unique in Western Europe was the relatively small change in the shares of the vote on left and right. Majorities in parliament could at times be secured only by striking bargains with the communists, who were thus able to influence the national government without being part of it. In the regions a Socialist– communist alliance was not unusual, so the communists were not entirely excluded from the political coalitions that ran Italy. In the early 1990s the Christian Democrats had been in power as the largest partner in coalition governments without interruption since the liberation. Changes of policy had, nevertheless, occurred, changes which roughly mirrored the political swings in the rest of Western Europe. In Italy, however, they were the result not of governments changing hands between opposite parties, but of the parties themselves changing direction. Party policies were pragmatic. The Communist Party had altered course; the Socialist Party was hardly ‘socialist’; the Christian Democrats did not always follow policies to the right of centre – all this made changes of direction in government possible. The 1990s brought old problems once more grimly to the surface: the web of Mafia corruption and drug trafficking had spread to the north. The whole of Italy was shocked when in the spring and summer of 1992 two of Italy’s most prominent Mafia judges were murdered. Organised crime appeared to be beyond the control of the government. Corruption scandals further alienated the people from the self-serving politicians. The huge deficit caused by government spending had doubled the country’s debts during the 1980s. At the same time, Italy’s infrastructure – its railways, its roads, its telecommunications – was crumbling. Somehow Italian politics had managed to defy gravity in the past. A founding member of the European Community, Italy enthusiastically backed the monetary and political union envisaged by the Maastricht Treaty, but its parlous economic condition made the idea of convergence with the economies of France and Germany within a few years difficult to take seriously. The general election in 1992 weakened the four-party governing coalition, leaving it with so small a majority that it could not hope to push through any reforming measures. As a result, Giuliano Amato, the deputy leader of the Socialist Party, was asked by the president to form the fifty-first Italian government. Amato was faced with the problem of gaining parliamentary approval for necessary financial reforms, to cut welfare and pension payments. There was no other way to meet Italy’s burgeoning deficit. In September 1992 it suffered the indignity, in company with Britain, of having to devalue and leave the Exchange Rate Mechanism. In the early 1990s Italy seemed to have reached a turning point. Political scandal, Mafia criminality and an economic debacle threatened a continuous national crisis unless fundamental reforms were carried through, and not just talked about. The criminal investigations begun by members of the judiciary in Milan in 1992 involving Craxi snowballed in 1993 to reveal endemic political and financial corruption throughout the upper echelons of local and national government and in commerce. Even Andreotti, the veteran political survivor, seven times prime minister, was accused of being in the service of the Mafia. The collapse of the Cold War in any case altered the shape of Italian politics. Government coalitions formed around the Christian Democrats and Socialists to keep the communists out had lost their raison d’être. So many party leaders, ministers and deputies were touched by scandal and accusations of corruption moreover, that the political game simply could not continue as before. The electorate was disillusioned; business wished to end government waste; the people of the north baulked at subsidising the south; unemployment ran at over 10 per cent. The demand for political change thus became irresistible. Reforms were passed in time for the March 1994 national elections. Three-quarters of the seats were allocated to ‘first-past-the-post’ winners in constituencies and one quarter on the basis of the old proportional representation but with a new 5 per cent hurdle. The politicians of the established parties rushed to put on new clothes. The Communist Party, phoenix-like, re-emerged as the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS); a minority of the old orthodox party now called themselves Reconstructed Communists; the disgraced Christian Democrats turned to its pre-fascist past and fought the election as the Popular Party of Italy; but there were also entirely new forces such as the Northern League led by Umberto Bossi, a regional party wishing to break up the centralised state and demanding the right to keep the wealth generated by industry in the region; it had already made a striking debut in the elections of 1992. The real phenomenon of 1994, however, was the emergence of an anti-socialist, free-market, right-wing party, the brainchild of a charismatic business tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, owner of three national TV channels and the Milan football club whose battle cry, forza, inspired the name of his party, Forza Italia. Formed only a few weeks before the March 1994 elections to stop the expected bandwagon of the left, Berlusconi scored an unprecedented victory. The elections were fought in alliance groupings of the left as the ‘Progressives’, the right as the ‘Freedom Alliance’, and the centre, ‘Pact for Italy’. Italian political traditions are deeply ingrained and electoral reform will not change them overnight. Bribery and patronage are endemic; non-payment of taxes is a sport for the selfemployed. What appeared to be a breakthrough when Berlusconi with his new Forza Italia Party won the elections of 1994 proved illusory. Predictably, Bossi’s Northern League broke up the coalition, later becoming more extreme in demanding ‘independence’ for the north. Basic problems – the hole in public finance, disparities of regional wealth, taxation and welfare reform – remain. The technocrat caretaker administration had no time during its brief period of office between January 1996 and the elections of April 1996 to achieve much. The elections, however, did mark a change when Romano Prodi, who headed a centre-left Olive Tree coalition, defeated Berlusconi’s Freedom Alliance. For the first time the new government included ‘reformed’ communists; but it also had to rely on the votes of the unreconstructed ones. The fundamental change in politics has not just been the demise of the corrupt old Christian Democrat Party but the entry of the communists, who continue to enjoy strong electoral support in government. Although they do not have a twoparty system, alternative and opposing coalitions can now provide the electorate with a real choice: a gain for democracy. In Italy the need to qualify for monetary union also topped the political agenda. Its reputation for unsound finance has been strenuously repudiated and reforms have been driven through with determination. Stringent campaigns were fought against those prominent politicians and industrialists who were involved in bribery and corruption scandals. With the formation of the centre-left Olive Tree coalition government in May 1996 the administration of Prime Minister Romano Prodi also brought some political stability to the country after a turbulent decade that saw the emergence of Silvio Berlusconi’s new right-wing Forza Italia movement and Umberto Bossi’s separatist Northern League. Prodi wanted to tackle the roots of Italy’s deficit spending, the over-generous welfare payments, especially pensions, and the bloated civil service and bureaucracy, in order to qualify for the European Monetary Union. But this centre-left coalition, which included the reformed communists, also needed the support of the Marxist rump communists, who had formed the Communist Refoundation Party. The 1997 budget created tensions but the Marxists were reluctant to risk another general election in which they might lose support. With the benefit of some creative accounting, Italy was judged to have met the Maastricht criteria and so was able to join the Monetary Union in 1999. The Olive Tree coalition ousted Prodi in 1998 and in quick succession had three new leaders as prime minister – in October 1998 Massimo D’Aleima, followed by Giuliano Amato, who was removed in time for the former mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli, to contest the May 2001 general election. With all those changes it looked like the old politics of musical chairs. As for Berlusconi, the electorate did not appear too much concerned with charges of corruption in running his media business empire or in the conflict of interests that would arise when a prime minister controls the main news channels, three national TV stations, a large publishing house, the AC Milan football team, a major newspaper and financial services. A self-made billionaire, he promised success in the handling of government. There was a reaction against Italy’s old political elite in favour of a maverick business tycoon who promised to cure Italy’s ills, though it was far from clear how he could make good providing better services while spending less – the classic conservative appeal. The electorate gave Berlusconi’s own party solid support in the Freedom Alliance he formed. His coalition partners in the centre-right administration were the same as in his ill-starred short government of 1994 – the populist rhetorically extremist leaders of the Northern League Umberto Bossi and Gianfranco Fini’s Social Movement with echoes of the old Fascist Party. But Bossi’s poor showing in the election no longer gave him the leverage to bring down the government as in 1994, and Fini was doing his best to shed the lingering fascist image. The big reforms Berlusconi promised remain to be enacted. Nothing much changed. The Italian budget remained out of skelter, the looming pension crisis has not been tackled, economic growth in difficult global conditions was low. In the European Union, Italy became more assertive, but Berlusconi did not risk taking conflict too far. At home too he has avoided confrontations with vested interests. His careful middle way was well illustrated by his handling of Italy’s position in the Iraq war. Italian public opinion as elsewhere in continental Europe was strongly opposed to the war. Berlusconi masked his own pro-American feelings declaring no Italian combat forces would be sent while quietly permitting the US to use Italian bases. On the home front, Berlusconi was dogged by allegations of business corruption going back to the 1980s. As a serving prime minister he had been forced to defend himself before magistrates in Milan on the very eve of taking over the revolving presidency of the European Union in July 2003. National pride would not allow that. A new bill was passed freeing Berlusconi from prosecution while prime minister but the constitutional court in the following year struck down the bill. Unprecedented for a serving prime minister, Berlusconi at the close of 2004 once again became the defendant in a criminal corruption trial, accused of bribing judges twenty years earlier, before he had entered politics. He was acquitted; a political crisis was averted. Before he leaves office, Italians will have tired of the legal dramas and will judge him on the success of his administration.

 

 

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