The Silent Opposition: How Italy's Floundering Left Has Helped Keep Berlusconi in Power
Yascha Mounk - September 21, 2009
SILVIO BERLUSCONI is such a captivating, larger-than-life character that for the last decade and a half virtually any article published about Italy’s political malaise has focused on him. But Italy’s third richest man did not come to be the three-time Prime Minister of a G8 country—with well-nigh monopolistic control of the nation’s media to boot—by means of wealth, corruption, or willpower alone. On the contrary, Berlusconi’s lasting popularity at the polling booth goes beyond the man himself.
A very large minority among the Italian population actually continues to greet Berlusconi with intense hatred and widespread ridicule. Italy, despite appearances, is not a naturally right-wing country. Rather, the success of the right is explained by the fact that the left-wing half of the country has of late fallen into an angry, impotent slumber.
This is because, over the last two decades, Italy’s center-left politicians have become increasingly inept at representing this segment of the population—or at formulating constructive policies that would make it possible to convert the popular discontent with the political system into electoral success. If Berlusconi has succeeded in monopolizing public discourse, for example, then this is partially owed to the incapacity or even unwillingness of Italy’s left-wing politicians to defend democratic norms. To understand the roots of today’s Italy is, at least in part, to understand the roots of the weakness of today’s Italian left.
The programmatic weakness of Italy’s left, in turn, has to be seen in a larger European context. To be sure, a lot of specifically Italian factors have shaped the specifically Italian phenomenon of Berlusconi. But they could not have prevailed if Europe’s left—self-satisfied about a Pyrrhic victory in the cultural field, yet lacking a popularly appealing economic program—still retained a strong sense of purpose.
CASTEL DEL Piano—a remote hilltop town at the foot of the Monte Amiata, southern Tuscany’s highest mountain—is an excellent example of the left-wing sentiment that still persists in large parts of Italy. On a recent Tuesday evening, Castel del Piano’s stadium seated nearly as many people as the town has residents. The night’s unlikely attraction, however, was not a football match, but rather the hard-hitting political humor of Sabina Guzzanti.
Attendance at the one-woman show was a political act. It was directed against Berlusconi, whose government was being roasted to bitter laughter and redemptive applause. Here, the seemingly silent opposition to Berlusconi’s Italy was out in force. Yet, this overwhelmingly left-wing audience did not grant its most approving laughs or its most demonstrative applause to Guzzanti’s one-liners about the center-right. Rather, it was most emphatic when she despairingly railed against the Partito Democratico (PD), Italy’s major center-left party.
At the heart of Guzzanti’s ire was the PD’s understanding of moderation as meeting the opponent half way, whatever the substantive issue in question might be. Instead of standing up for principles, she lamented, center-left politicians have compromised on everything and anything as long as this makes them look reasonable in a political climate dominated by the right. “We want to carry out a coup d’état,” she imagines Berlusconi saying to Massimo d’Alema, a key figure in the PD. D’Alema responds, simply: “Parliamone,” let’s talk about it.
The full stadium in Castel del Piano is emblematic of the larger “silent” opposition to Berlusconi in Italy: the roughly 3,000 spectators may have ridiculed Berlusconi, but the real targets of disgust were the left-wing politicians who supposedly represented their views.
LEFT-WING voters in Italy have indeed had ample reason to feel betrayed by their political leaders. Over the last fifteen years alone, the Italian left has been divided into a confusing multiplicity of parties, umbrella organizations, and electoral coalitions that puts to shame the struggle between the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front, as portrayed in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Yet, all these groupings have one thing in common: for reasons of both programmatic lethargy and persistent corruption, no recent left-wing party has managed to convince and mobilize its base.
The Italian Republic has of course never exactly been free of corruption. The dominating figure of Italian politics during the cold war—Giuliano Andreotti of the center-right Democrazia Cristiana (DC)—ran a cynical political machine, which was animated largely by corruption. But Mani Pulite—the most powerful movement for a new politics to date, which swallowed up wholesale the established political regime between 1992 and 1994—came when Andreotti’s heyday had long passed. On the contrary, its causes included the discovery of the even more corrupt system headed by Bettino Craxi, Italy’s Prime Minister from 1983 to 1987, whose supposedly left-wing party bore the name Partito Socialista (PS).
Craxi’s PS was eviscerated in the political earthquake brought on by Mani Pulite. At about the same time, the “eurocommunist” Partito Communista Italiano (PCI) --which at its electoral peak in 1976 had taken as much as 34.4 percent of the vote-- began to fall apart as a consequence both of its own corruption scandals and the demise of communism. For better or worse, then, the only left-wing party in Italy worth taking seriously today is the PD—whose members were originally recruited not just from the PS and PCI but also from the moderate wing of Andreotti’s DC.
The PD (and its earlier incarnations) has celebrated some successes. For example, Italy owes the few years of relative political calm, prosperity, and international respectability that it has enjoyed since 1990 to the governments of Romano Prodi. In the aftermath of the disastrous Berlusconi governments, Prodi’s calm leadership was enough to procure narrow electoral victories for the center-left twice, first in 1996 and then again in 2006.
Though Prodi, a wonkish and even deliberately boring economics professor, was a competent technocrat, he could offer neither rousing rhetoric nor a long-term strategy. Consequently, Prodi’s governments, too tame to achieve any particular left-wing objectives, kept Italy in a safe pair of hands before, on each occasion, falling prey to the internal conflicts that continue to mar the left’s reputation to this day.
Notwithstanding these moderate achievements, the PD has had its fair share of trouble, too. For a start, center-left politicians, though less corrupt than Berlusconi, have hardly given voters reason to believe that the problem of political corruption and links to organized crime doesn’t apply to them at all. Rosa Russo Iervolino, the mayor of Naples and a leading member of the PD, for example, came under suspicion of participating in a kickback scheme in close collaboration with the Camorra earlier this year. Her refusal to resign was extremely damaging; even more damaging was the hesitation of party grandees to condemn her publicly.
Most baffling of all, however, remains the failure of any of the center-left governments of the last fifteen years to pass effective legislation against Berlusconi’s conflicts of interest or the excessive concentration of television channels under his control. Though Prodi had promised to do so in the electoral campaigns of both 1996 and 2006, his governments failed to pass any such law.
So far nobody has offered a convincing explanation for the sources of this baffling inaction. Conspiracy theories abound, but there is no real evidence of bribery or even collusion with the opposition. Yet the failure of center-left governments to pass a law that is so clearly for the national good—as well as in their own strategic interest—is sufficiently puzzling to have alienated many voters. It is, after all, hard to trust a political party that doesn’t enact the laws that are necessary for its own long-term survival.
THE FAILURE of the center-left to deliver on the level of policy has been matched by its failure on a rhetorical level. At the last election, for example, the candidate of the center-left, Walter Veltroni, not only italianized Obama’s “Yes, we can” into the silly “Si può fare.” Even worse, Veltroni came out with the idea of never mentioning his opponent by name. Throughout the election campaign, the center-left called Berlusconi, simply, “the principal exponent of the ideas of the center-right.” The ill-fated move, another inelegant attempt to appear moderate, not only did additional violence to Italy’s political language; it also made sharp attacks on Berlusconi’s conflicts of interest impossible.
In a similar vein, the PD, mostly to cover up its internal divisions, continues to copy Berlusconi’s pleasant-sounding, content-free generalities. The party program on the PD website is full of well-intentioned wishes for “safer schools” or “to protect and value the Italian cultural and artistic heritage,” but sparse on details and lacking in overall vision. Posters that the PD plastered all over Rome at the time of the conflict in Gaza sum this up perfectly. They lamely read, “War in Palestine: Try for Peace.”
Is there some hope that the Italian left might awaken from its slumber anytime soon? In the short term: no. Berlusconi’s lasting popularity even through the recent stream of revelations—and the economic downturn—suggests that his position is secure, for now. If the current government should fall before the end of the legislative period in 2013, it will most likely be because of internal contradictions in the governing coalition. The faint hope has to be that the separatists of the Lega Nord or the post-fascists of the Alleanza Nazionale—who formally merged with Berlusconi’s party half a year ago—might break rank, not that the PD will be able to hound Berlusconi out of office.
In the medium term, by contrast, the strategic space for Italy’s center-left to succeed does exist. In the late 1990s, a wave of center-left governments across Europe wrote into law important social and cultural transformations. The legal position of homosexuals is an important aspect of this larger phenomenon of social liberalization. Tony Blair in the UK, Gerhard Schröder in Germany, and Lionel Jospin in France all introduced forms of civil partnerships open to homosexuals. In this way, these center-left governments finally gave official sanction to cultural changes—initiated in the 1968 student revolts—that had already become established in most milieus.
These changes have not, so far, arrived in Italy. And yet, very large parts of Italy – big cities, but also traditionally left-wing rural areas in Central Italy—are more socially liberal than either the current government, which courts the Vatican whenever it can, or the current leadership of the PD, which is perennially scared of losing the votes of centrist Catholics. Many, perhaps even a few of those who vote for Berlusconi, yearn for a political leader who can personify this tolerant twenty-first century Italian identity. If the PD had the courage to copy the social and cultural agenda of recent European center-left governments, its base might temporarily regain a sense of purpose, and Berlusconi could be beaten at the polls in the not-too-distant future.
In the long term, however, this recipe won’t suffice to turn the tide. As the examples of Germany, France and Britain show, the cultural changes that constituted the core of their legislative activity are real achievements. What is more, they are here to stay. Center-right parties in Germany, Britain and France—all of which fiercely opposed these policies only a decade ago—have no intention of turning the clock back. But, precisely because these issues are no longer a political bone of contention, they cannot provide the European center-left with a continuing sense of purpose in upcoming elections.
This process is painfully on display in Spain these days where José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s government—which had seemed the last big hope for Europe’s left in recent years—is now running out of steam for very similar reasons. There, too, progressive reforms were temporarily able to grip the imagination of the population but, now that they have been attained, Zapatero has been unable to continue the momentum for a broader left-wing agenda.
Today, the European scene is sad to survey. Germany’s once proud Social Democratic Party has been reduced to hoping not so much for a victory as for its bare survival as a major political force at the upcoming parliamentary elections. New Labour, which under the banner of “Cool Britannia” once personified a more modern identity for the UK, has been reduced to looking even more out-of-touch and old-fashioned than the Conservatives under their Old Etonian leader, David Cameron. France’s Partie Socialiste, which had enjoyed seemingly unassailable prestige under François Mitterand’s leadership, has now, between Ségolène Royal’s mediocre presidential campaign and her subsequent power struggle with Martine Aubry, turned into a laughing stock.
Europe’s left, in short, suffers from its lack of a coherent economic program and the universal acceptance of its social and cultural policies.
In this light, the most frightening thing about Berlusconi’s unopposed success is not that it is owed exclusively to special Italian factors. To be sure, both the degeneration of Italy’s public discourse and the inefficacy of the Italian left are far more extreme than in any other large Western European country. But this, sadly, might be emblematic of the growing crisis on the European left.
If the PD should rid itself of Dario Franceschini, its hapless leader of the moment, and somehow find a politician with the charisma of Zapatero, Blair, or Schröder, it could win the next elections. But would its success continue after five or ten years, once major social liberalizations have been passed? That is another question entirely.
In the end, Berlusconi’s ascendancy is owed not only to the shambolic state of the Italian left; more worryingly, the shambolic state of the Italian left is, in turn, owed partially to the toothless political program of the European left.
Yascha Mounk is editor of The Utopian and a PhD Candidate at Harvard University, with research interests in political theory, European politics, and intellectual history.