Letter from Italy

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April saw the right deal a devastating blow in the Italian elections. Phil Rushton looks at the reasons for the defeat and how the left can rebuild

The disastrous election results in Italy have sent shockwaves across Europe. It seems incredible that Silvio Berlusconi is back in with a bigger majority than before and that Italy's defence minister is now a fascist, Ignazio La Russa from the National Alliance.

Equally serious is the blow to the radical reformist left: Rifondazione, the Greens and the Comunisti Italiani, grouped together in the Sinistra Arcobaleno (Rainbow Left Coalition). The combined percentage of the three parties' vote added up to 11 percent, and they then declared they were aiming at 15 percent in the elections, but then finished with little more than 3 percent.

The knock-on effects have not been slow in coming. For example, the head of the Italian employers' organisation, Luca de Montezemolo, immediately launched an all-out attack on the trade unions, calling them an unrepresentative caste, a waste of money and no more responsive to workers than the bosses. When two separate rapes occurred last month in Milan and Rome, in which the alleged attackers were immigrants, they were then seized on by the right to call for "the expulsion of barbarians".

But the radical left is in turmoil. In Rifondazione both its historic leader, Fausto Bertinotti, and the general secretary of the party, Franco Giordano, have resigned their positions, speaking of the need for "self-criticism", and the former majority of the party, Bertinotti and Giordano's base, has split down the middle.

So what happened? The day after the results, even the CBS news channel said that the campaign of the centre-left was so bland most voters couldn't tell it apart from Berlusconi's. This led to a situation where the party with the biggest publicity machine had the advantage. Yet the centre-left campaign could have articulated the majority of Italian voters' worries about their economic future.

That same economic insecurity, however, enabled the racist Northern League to divert workers' fears of material insecurity from the bosses to immigrants. So while the Rifondazione leadership downplayed the importance of a workplace base in favour of electoral calculations, the party with a real presence on the ground won, and in many cases that was the Northern League.

So when Montezemolo attacks the unions, one of the first voices reining him in is the Northern League, which perhaps fears that an employers' attack on its worker base would place it in a no-win situation: being able to support neither the bosses nor the workers.

But, of course, what really played havoc with the centre-left's vote was their performance in government. At one point the minister of defence of the previous right wing government could state that while the centre-right had cut military spending, the centre-left actually increased it, and by double figures. Add to that their refusal to significantly reverse any of the anti-worker or anti-immigrant legislation of the previous Berlusconi government, and the activists of the centre-left were demoralised before the campaign began.

So what now? The week after the vote an attempt to regroup was held under the banner of the United Plural Left. Nichi Vendola, tipped as successor to Bertinotti, received significant applause, despite reaffirming his close ties with the old leadership. Clearer about the problem was Paolo Ferrero, ex-minister for social welfare, who stated that the parties of the Rainbow Left lost when they "failed to respond to the hopes generated by the elections of 2006".

The anti capitalist left had candidates in the elections in the form of the Sinistra Critica (Critical Left), which recently parted company with Rifondazione. While it did not receive a massive vote, polling less than 1 percent, it has made a name for itself that can be built on. To do so, however, will mean much sharper political proposals. Sinistra Critica has been consistently present in all major national political battles, but it lacks a clear strategy to propose to the movement.

This is a shame, because the opportunities are there, despite the traditional left. Anti-privatisation and environmental campaigns have mobilised thousands, and workers' anger remains high after deaths in a series of workplace accidents.
A huge debate has opened up about the way forward for the left, but to rebuild in this situation much more ambitious strategies are needed.

Phil Rushton is a member of Sinistra Critica in Naples