Italy: Preparing a Warm Welcome for Bush

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In Italy problems are mounting up for Tony Blair's ally Silvio Berlusconi.

Last month workers scored a big victory. On the industrial front, both Berlusconi and his business allies must have thought they had ridden out the worst of the storms of protest that have characterised his government. After four general strikes in two years, the explosion and then decline of the social forum movement, the opposition had no clear victory to point to.

But not now. A month-long strike by Fiat workers at the Melfi factory in southern Italy ended with a stunning victory. Management threw everything they had at the mass pickets: a 'back to work' march (of just 150 people), helicopters removing vital equipment (an expensive flop), seven injunctions against the union (ignored) and finally police attacks on the picket lines - answered by spontaneous walkouts elsewhere and a national engineering strike 48 hours later. After just four days on strike all Fiat factories bar one had stopped production due to its 'just in time' production system. So after a month of lost production management gave in and agreed to pay increases and abolition of the hated two week long night shift.

Given the prominence of Fiat in industrial relations, and the fact that its workers are often viewed as creating the 'going rate' in industry, the victory is likely to have widespread reverberations.

On the electoral front, the government is worried because opinion polls show it is facing a bad result in European and local elections this month. Some of the reasons for unpopularity are obvious, such as the arrogance and the stench of corruption that surrounds Berlusconi. Now Berlusconi is trying to recover lost ground by proposing massive tax cuts for the rich, reducing the top rate from 45 percent to 33 percent - even lower than in Blair's Britain.

But big business is in open revolt: economic growth is sluggish at best, primarily due to government incompetence and Berlusconi's obsession with staying out of jail. At the same time, government spending rose by 5.7 percent in real terms last year - double the inflation rate. A recent survey among the business community revealed for the first time that the government's approval rating had fallen below 50 percent. And EU bankers are hopping mad too because the government deficit is now way beyond the levels fixed under the Maastricht agreement.

On the protest front, things are likely to hot up on 4 June, when George Bush visits Rome. The vast majority of the Italian population are against Italian involvement, and Berlusconi must be praying that the Italian hostages being held in Iraq won't be killed, as many will hold him responsible. Given that the pope is anti-war too, who knows whether his prayers will be answered?

Protesters have already announced a huge demonstration in Rome. As with Bush's visit to Britain last November, the highlight is likely to be the toppling of a statue of Bush, as well as one of Berlusconi.

And once all this is over, Berlusconi has to go back on trial for bribing judges. One of his closest allies has recently been given a five-year sentence for the same crime. As with Blair, it looks like its all going to end in tears. His, not ours.