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As Italy's elections go from bad to worse, Vicenza remains the silver lining

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Message Stephanie Westbrook

Just when it seemed things could get no worse on the Italian political landscape following the first round of elections, run-off elections this past Sunday and Monday proved the contrary. But the northern city of Vicenza, home to a vibrant citizens’ movement against a second US military base in their city, proved to be the silver lining.


In the mid-April elections that came after the collapse last January of the center-left government led by Romano Prodi, the center-right coalition led by media magnate, billionaire and staunch Bush ally Silvio Berlusconi not only beat out former Rome Mayor and leader of the newly formed Democratic Party, Walter Veltroni, but also with a very comfortable 9-point lead.


In a campaign run on fear of immigrants, aided by the all too fresh memory of the Prodi government that managed disillusion across the board, and with the benefit of his 3 television networks, Berlusconi’s newly formed coalition, Popolo della libertà, People of Freedom – comprised of his Forza Italia party and Alleanza Nazionale, which has its roots in the neo fascist party MSI – together with the Lega Nord, Northern League, gained a whopping 98 seat margin in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, and 42 in the Senate.


With Forza Italia and Alleanza Nazionale running under the umbrella of Popolo della Libertà, which aims to become a full fledged party this year, the numbers for individual parties are unclear. This is not the case, however, of the xenophobic Lega Nord, which chose to retain its identity and managed to double its numbers from the 2006 elections, scoring as much as 27% in Veneto and over 20% in Lombardy, and making a decisive contribution to the right’s victory.


And for the first time in the Italian Republic’s 60-year history, there will be no Communist party represented in Parliament. With the formation of the center-left Democratic Party, which shut out more left leaning former allies, Italy’s two communist parties, Rifondazione Comunista and Comunisti Italiani, together with the Green Party and the Socialists created their own coalition, the Rainbow Left. However with only 3% of the vote, they failed to gain a single seat. Rifondazione alone had over 7% of the vote in 2006. Political cartoonist Vauro summed it up nicely with panda asking the Greens, “And you wanted to save us?”


The elimination of the Italian left from the political scene can be attributed in part to the voto utile, or useful vote, with the two major forces in this election calling on voters to not waste their vote on smaller parties or coalitions. Dario Franceschini of the Democratic Party went so far as to summon the specter of Ralph Nader’s bid for the 2000 US elections to make the point. And the Rainbow Left’s 2008 campaign as a balancing force to an eventual broad coalition between Veltroni and Berlusconi failed to garner votes.


But it was also due to the voto critico, or critical vote, as a part of their voters simply didn’t show up at the polls or chose to put a blank ballot in the box. By participating in the more centrist Prodi government, the leftist parties had hoped to push it to the left, but instead ended up alienating their base. Under Prodi, parliament failed to re-write Berlusconi’s labor laws, voted to continue financing the military mission in Afghanistan and to send troops to Lebanon. Prodi further signed on to such “winning” US military projects as the F-35 fighter jet – the most expensive weapons program in history – and the Missile Defense System. In addition, military spending increased by 23% in two years and construction of the new US military base in Vicenza was approved in spite of strong national and local opposition.


The smaller parties of the far right fared no better. There has been a move over the past years away from a the fragmented system of numerous small parties forming coalitions that went from center to far left and right toward more of a two party system. It all culminated last autumn, as the fall of the teetering Prodi government became imminent, with the formation of the Partito Democratico followed by the creation of the Popolo della Libertà coalition .


This less fragmented system resulting from the elections has been praised by many, as the sprawling coalitions made it difficult to govern: Italy has had 62 governments since WWII. However, others are concerned this lack of representation for large slices of society will lead to further radicalization of the extra parliamentary left and right.


The political elections had been combined with already scheduled administrative elections for what was dubbed Election Day, where 2 regional, 9 provincial, 71 city governments were on the line. The majority of these contests were settled in run-off elections held this past Sunday and Monday. And the right’s victory turned into a triumph. Prior to elections, the center-left governed 42 cities and the center-right 24. The situation was inverted, with the center-right now governing 43 and the center-left 24.


But the biggest defeat by far took place in the capital. Just three days after the Festa di Liberazione, which celebrates the liberation of Italy from Nazi-Fascism, Rome elected a mayor who began his political career in the neo-fascist MSI party.


Though he lost by over 5 points in the first round, Gianni Alemanno of the Alleanza Nazionale party, which was founded in 1995 by Gianfranco Fini after he dissolved MSI, came back to win by over 7 points in the run-off against Democratic Party candidate Francesco Rutelli, mayor of Rome prior to Veltroni, but more recently Minister of Cultural Heritage in Prodi’s government. On Wednesday, Fini was elected President of the Chamber of Deputies.


Monday evening, as the results became clear, supporters gathered on the Campidoglio, seat of the city government, to celebrate the results. Photos of young men with arms stretched out in the saluto romano, or fascist salute, covered the newspapers the next day. Alemanno and Fini are trying to distance themselves from their neo-fascist history, but those photos will remain in the minds of Romans for some time.


The success of the right in Rome’s run-off elections can be attributed in part to the success of the national elections two weeks ago. And just as the national campaign was run on fear of immigrants, so it was in Rome. However, there was also some fatigue after 15 years of Rutelli and Veltroni, evidenced also by the win of Partito Democratico candidate Zingaretti in Rome’s provincial elections, and many believe voters of the Rainbow Left simply didn’t show up at the polls. 


It would be comforting to chalk all this up to electronic voting. However, Italians vote by marking a paper ballot with a pencil; the ballots are then counted by hand in front of observers from all parties. And while Berlusconi did have a distinct advantage as the owner of three television networks and several newspapers and periodicals, Italy also has a par condicio law, which guarantees equal time to all political parties, so television viewers heard from everyone from the far left to the far right. The par condicio also prohibits polling in the final 15 days and political rallies or television appearances the day before the elections in a welcome “day of silence.”


This law may soon become a thing of the past, though. Berlusconi blasted it as “undemocratic” throughout the elections, going on to praise the system in the US, which awards the person who has raised the most money, as more democratic.

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Stephanie Westbrook is a U.S. citizen who has been living in Rome, Italy since 1991. She is active in the peace and social justice movements in Italy.
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