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The return of Berlusconi

By James Panichi  -  13.12.2012 / 04:00 CET
Italy needs a strong alternative to Berlusconi. Sadly, the left-wing alternative is hopelessly outdated

He is back. After a year's absence, Italy's controversial former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has announced another Lazarus-like return to political life. And with his party still dominating parliament, there could be no Berlusconi resurrection without the simultaneous entombment of the current government. 

And so it was that Mario Monti, the former European commissioner who had been dragooned into saving Italy from a Greek fate, announced that he would step down as prime minister because of Berlusconi's return.

Even before Monti's step, it was plain that Berlusconi's new lease of life is bad news. Monti's already timid reform programme will fall by the wayside as the electioneering starts. What is more, once in power, il Cavaliere would again spend his political capital fighting the judiciary, rather than reforming Italy's economy.

But there is also another important story in Italy's politics that needs to be told: the parlous state of the country's left-wing opposition.

For the past seven years, the Democratic Party (PD) has given voters no sense of being a government in waiting. Responsibility for day-to-day opposition to Berlusconi was outsourced to magistrates, while the party eschewed any attempt to formulate policy that could meet today's challenges.

Then, just over a week ago, the party faithful detonated the nuclear bomb of hubris. In the so-called ‘primary' elections to choose a leader, it opted for a crusty former communist apparatchik, Pier Luigi Bersani, over the reform-minded, youthful mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi.

Over 20 years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which makes the PD's inability to break free of its communist heritage all the more puzzling.

The short-sightedness of choosing Bersani is primarily demographic. The class solidarity of post-war Italy is gone. In the country's north, what is left of the working classes often identifies with the xenophobic Northern League, while on the Milan metro blue-collar workers happily read the Berlusconi-owned Il Giornale.

In fact, the centre-left is now down to a demographic rump of educated, state-employed, old-school lefties who feel that a former communist leader with a penchant for Cuban cigars is the right image. It was these party members who opposed Renzi on the grounds that he was a Trojan horse of right-wing economic rationalism.

It is an absurd argument, implying that centre-left governments have no business promoting competition and keeping public expenditure in check. Yet it is an argument that has won the day in the PD.

Bersani was able to secure the leadership in the run-off poll thanks to the support of the hard-left governor of the Apulia region, Nichi Vendola. Vendola wants a return to the costly politiche industriali of a not-too-distant past, in which politicians picked winners and a state-owned holding company bought pasta factories. Vendola now owns Bersani.

Meanwhile, the party is letting the stranglehold of interest groups go unchallenged. Lawyers, pharmacists, doctors, journalists, even beach-resort operators – they will all continue to oppose attempts to end their uncompetitive privileges. The electorate is screaming out for an end to such privileges, but a large part of the PD's membership will instead busy itself with dismissing talk of meritocracy as ‘Anglo-Saxon' (that is not a compliment).

And in the process, the PD has failed to broaden its electoral appeal. That is hardly surprising: Italian post-communists despised Tony Blair's reforms of British Labour and with Bersani they have found their own harder-left version of Neil Kinnock, a leader twice defeated by the Conservatives.

It is an act of complacency. Whether PD members like it or not, the broader electorate does not trust them. The party has only been elected when part of a broader coalition, led by someone with no communist baggage (namely Romano Prodi). The party's expectation that it can float into power on an anti-Berlusconi platform can only backfire.

A Berlusconi victory would be disastrous for Italy. But, sadly, a Bersani government would not be much better.

James Panichi is a journalist based in Brussels.

© 2014 European Voice. All rights reserved.

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