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Italy's elections: the return of Berlusconi - the fall of Rifondazione

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The richest man in Italy, corrupt right wing media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, won a resounding victory in the Italian elections on 13-14 April - a mere two years after having been swept from power.

Now he is back with a vengeance. Il Popolo Della Liberta, Berlusconi's bloc with Gianfranco Fini's "post-fascist" Alleanza Nazionale, in coalition with the racist populist Lega Nord of Umberto Bossi, will have a 101 seat majority in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Italian parliament, and a 38 seat majority in the Senate.

This arms him with a solid majority to force through parliament the sweeping neoliberal reforms the Italian, and indeed the European bourgeoisie has been baying for. In addition he can hope for support for many of these reforms from the main opposition party, Partito Democratico (PD) of Walter Veltroni.

The PD, founded in October 2007, is a fusion of the social democratic DS (the former right wing of the Eurocommunist Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) and the quaintly named Democrazia e Liberta - La Margherita, (Democracy is Liberty - the Daisy) of Romano Prodi, the rump of the former Christian Democrats. The fused party marks a final historic rupture of the former Stalinists with the workers' movement, and the emergence of a new bourgeois party, modeled on the US Democrats. Throughout the election, Veltroni (a former PCI/DS apparatchik) consciously modeled himself on Barack Obama.

According to the Italian media, Veltroni had, as early as last November, held secret negotiations with Berlusconi. Evidently the latter promised him one of the two highest constitutional judges and the presidency of one of the two chambers of parliament in return for support in the neoliberal reform process and the constitutional changes needed to entrench a two party system and exclude the left. Immediately after the election Berlusconi stated: "We are ready to work on reforms together with the opposition," adding, "We have difficult months before us which call for great efforts."

His words also hint at the biggest obstacle facing Berlusconi and Veltroni alike - resistance from the militant working class and the anticapitalist youth. Italian workers, like their French comrades under Nicolas Sarkozy, now face heavy attacks in the coming years, especially against the background of an economic crisis that is already hitting Italy.

They will face them with a trade union leadership, including that of the Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (Cgil), the largest and more militant of the major union confederations, still totally wedded to supporting Veltroni and the PD and thus putting the brakes on workers' resistance. They will also face these attacks with a reformist and anti-globalisation left, whose strength had been sapped by the last two years of collusion with Prodi, and which has just been swept out of parliament, bag and baggage.

An extra-parliamentary opposition?

Across Europe the capitalist media is crowing that, "for the first time since the fall of Mussolini, there is not a single Communist deputy in parliament". The left paper Il Manifesto carried, alongside a picture of the left leaders, a headline with gallows humour: "The Extra-Parliamentary Opposition".

Both Rifondazione Comunista (RC) and Partito dei Comunisti Italiani (PdCI) lost every one of their seats in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. In 2006 Rifondazione had 27 senators and 41 deputies, and the PdCI 11 senators and 16 deputies. Rifondazione leader Fausto Bertinotti has admitted this was a historic defeat and forthwith tendered his resignation. Both parties, plus the Greens and the Sinistra Democratica, stood on a common list, called the Sinistra Arcobaleno (Left Rainbow). They had desperately wanted to stand on a common list with the PD, but Veltroni, in pursuit of his two party system, sensed the usefulness of such a coalition had run its course..

Of course this total annihilation is the product of the anti-democratic system of percentage thresholds for representation, just as Berlusconi's huge majority is in part the result of the top-up system to give the winner a bigger majority than their votes entitle them to. Thus with only 3.2 and 3.4 per cent in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies respectively, the Sinistra Arcobaleno (Rainbow Left) bloc not only fell at the 8-percent hurdle for the upper house but failed to clear the 4 percent hurdle for the lower.

Rifondazione's own paper Liberazione is wringing its hands with grief and incomprehension at its loss of votes and seats. The electoral bloc of the two Communist parties together got well under half of their 2006 score. In that year Rifondazione alone got 5.8 per cent and 2,229,604 votes for the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of parliament) and 7.4 per cent or 2,518,624 votes in the Senate.

On the basis of this score RC joined Romano Prodi's government, and Bertinotti became speaker of the lower house. The chickens have now come home to roost for his gross opportunism in propping up Prodi for two years, while the latter tried to force through neoliberal reforms and send Italian troops to participate in the occupation of Afghanistan and "peace-keeping" in Lebanon. It is the bitter fruit of a workers' party joining a bourgeois government, being obliged to carry out the policies the capitalist class needs and demands at the expense of the working class.Once again the rottenness of the Stalinist policy of the popular front - a coalition of proletarian and bourgeois parties - has been demonstrated to the full. Justified by the need to "keep out the right", it has handed power back to Berlusconi, plus the "ex-fascist" Gianfranco Fini - supervisor of the police brutality of Genoa in 2001 - and Umberto Bossi, who wants the Italian navy to open fire on boats of "illegal" immigrants.

The wheel has come full circle for Bertinotti, but not for the first time. In November 2002, at the first European Social Forum in Florence, the Rifondazione chief addressed a huge meeting of Italian workers, as well as anticapitalist youth from all over the continent. Reviewing his two-year extra-governmental support for Prodi in the late 1990s - which had also allowed Berlusconi another election victory - he performed one of the self-criticisms he is renowned for, and promised never to do it again.

Yet, despite the massive workers' struggles which ensued over the next two years, the huge antiwar and anticapitalist mobilisations, which effectively paralysed Berlusconi's government and could have brought him down, Bertinotti looked for yet another bloc with Prodi - by then the author of the European Union's Lisbon Agenda of neoliberal reforms - as a parliamentary solution to the problem of ousting Berlusconi.

RC, which had been an important component of the anticapitalist and antiwar movements, which mobilised millions on the streets in the years after the Florence ESF, became an instrument for sabotaging these movements. Now it has paid the full price for Bertinotti's treachery.

The militant trade unionists in the minority Cobas federation or the more combative parts of the Cgil, and the anticapitalist youth might be tempted after this fiasco to turn their backs on the political struggle, to think that this all proves that the libertarian strategy of pursuing "social" struggles in the spaces that can be found free from state repression is the way forward.

But this would also merely repeat a terrible mistake. After all, Cobas and the Disobediente movement failed to hold the left reformists of Rifondazione to account, to demand they break with the neoliberal bourgeoisie. On the contrary, the lack of a political alternative to Bertinotti, a revolutionary alternative, meant that he was free to negotiate his own compromise with Prodi. As Vladimir Lenin said,

"Anarchism is always a form of punishment for the crimes of opportunism in the workers' movement and these things supplement one another."

In other words, the swing of the pendulum between anarchism or libertarianism and reformist parliamentarianism has to be broken. For the rank and file cadres of RC are to save anything from this debacle they must break from the reformist and class collaborationist policies of RC and set about building a new revolutionary workers' party, based on programme of mass direct action, in resistance to Berlusconi's reforms and the bosses' offloading of the economic crisis onto the working class. The dense web of local labour and anticapitalist organisation in Italy needs to convene in open conferences to debate out the lessons of the last five years and plan for the hard class battles ahead.Confusion on the far left

There is little comfort to be found in the results of the far left groups, which broke from Rifondazione in the last two years and stood independently. The Partito Comunista Dei Lavoratori of Marco Ferrando, received 208,394 votes, which although a reasonable number, equals only 0.571 per cent. The Fourth International section, Sinistra Critica - the grouping by Flavia d'Angeli - received 167,673 votes or 0.459 per cent.

In recent years, several left factions within RC correctly opposed Fausto Bertinotti's policy of entry into Prodi's neoliberal government, even mobilising substantial minority votes against it at party congresses and national leadership meetings. But they carried out either wooden sectarian walkout tactics like the PCdL or a semi-toleration of Bertinotti's parliamentary support for Prodi, like Sinistra Critica.

The PCdL of Ferrando and Franco Grisolia is linked internationally to the Partido Obrero of Jorge Altamira in Argentina. Its problem is that, by leaving Rifondazione at the moment of its entry into a bourgeois government, and proclaiming itself the revolutionary alternative, it effectively cut itself off from the inevitable internal struggle, which would intensify within the 90,000 strong party as the betrayal of its leadership became clear.

Members of Sinistra Critica, the followers of the Fourth International in Italy, who had senators and deputies elected on the RC list, voted for confidence motions when Prodi forced the RC to do so. Eventually, however, when their senator Franco Turigliatto was expelled for voting against funds for the Italian intervention in Afghanistan, Sinsitra Critica decided to leave Rifondazione. Now Sinistra Critica advocates dissolving itself into some sort of broad anti-neoliberal formation (feminist, ecologist, etc.) rather than calling for a new revolutionary working class party.

Clearly neither PCdL nor Sinsitra Critica have managed to make themselves the rallying point for the tens of thousands of RC members and the hundreds of thousands of RC voters opposed to the rotten class collaborationist policies of Bertinotti. It will require a fundamental re-evaluation of their policies over the last ten years and more for them to do so.

There are left oppositionists remaining inside the party, include Lotta (Struggle - section of the CWI), Essere Comunisti - grouped around the magazine l'Ernesto (old-style Stalinists), and FalceMartello (connected to the International Marxist Tendency of Alan Woods). The revolutionary mettle of the latter can be judged by the fact that, when all the other left factions within RC voted against Turigliatto's expulsion, FalceMartello merely abstained.The reason for this cowardice is the Ted Grant tradition of strategic entry in reformist parties. The workers, you see, will always turn to their traditional (reformist) organisations, rather than the vanguard splitting away to rally them to a revolutionary party. Well, whether or not Rifondazione revives itself in opposition again, surely a far less likely or immediate prospect since it has so recently performed this trick on its working class base, it is a useless tactic with which to address those workers, who have so recently lost their illusions in left reformism.