Thursday April 25 2013

Italian election: Ex-‘official communists’ in disarray

Toby Abse reports on the fallout following the re-election of president Napolitano

Giorgio Napolitano: presiding over a grand coalition?

The April 20 re-election of former communist Giorgio Napolitano as president of the Italian Republic after six ballots is an unprecedented event in Italy’s post-war history; never before has a president been given a second term. Napolitano will be 88 in June, so he will be nearly 95 if he completes a full seven-year term.1 Obviously the expectation is that he will serve for a year or two before retiring when the political situation has become calmer. But, once installed in the Quirinale, presidents are under no compulsion to take early retirement - only one, Giovanni Leone, has had to resign in disgrace - even if there have been other instances of them resigning a month or two before the official end of their term.

Napolitano’s re-election is in all probability the precursor to the formation of some sort of grand coalition - whether of an overtly political or at least partly technocratic character (the so-called governo del presidente) - involving both the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) and Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL), as well as the centrist Scelta Civica, led by the current caretaker prime minister, Mario Monti. This outcome, in many ways a continuation of the ‘strange majority’ that supported Monti’s technocratic government between November 2011 and December 2012, has been favoured over the last 55 days by Napolitano, Berlusconi, Monti and some leading figures within the ex-‘official communist’-dominated PD, although not by Pierluigi Bersani, now only caretaker secretary of the PD since his resignation on April 19.

However, even if some form of grand coalition has always seemed a rather more probable outcome than the minority centre-left government, which would be reliant on abstentions or favourable votes from some other forces,2 the way in which it came about was a complete disaster for the PD, which has in effect committed collective political suicide.

Last week’s events cannot be fully explained without a degree of knowledge that is not available to outsiders observing the outcomes of a series of six secret ballots. As I indicated in my article a fortnight ago,3 there have always been some defections in such secret ballots, but they have rarely been on the scale seen last week. As far as this weapon has been used in the past, it was primarily associated with the faction-ridden and at times fratricidal ranks of the old pre-1992 Democrazia Cristiana (DC), not the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) and its successor parties, the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS) and Democratici di Sinistra (DS). These parties remained relatively homogeneous and disciplined organisations, even after the formal abolition of ‘democratic centralism’ as the PCI understood it.

Although one might argue that the PD’s origin in 2007 as a (by no means entirely successful) fusion of the DS with groupings coming from the left wing of the old DC4 might to some extent explain the lack of party discipline displayed in both the crucial ballots on April 19 and April 20, this is probably too simplistic and mechanical an explanation: not all former communists are conspicuous for total loyalty to the party line and not all former Christian Democrats are inveterate backstabbers, even if there is some truth in these stereotypes.

The other explanation put forward by some commentators claims that it was the new intake of younger, and often politically inexperienced, deputies and senators, brought into parliament by the PD’s parliamentary primary contests last December and sweeping aside many old-timers, who made up the undisciplined element. But this is even more contentious. Firstly, this explanation is one proposed by an older generation of PD politicians, some of whom have a rather self-interested motive for distracting attention from bitter internecine feuds of the kind some of them have indulged in for decades and which may well have played a particularly important role in the disgraceful behaviour of roughly a quarter of the PD’s ‘grand electors’5 in the fourth round. Secondly, if we accept a generational explanation as a working hypothesis, it might explain a refusal to vote for the candidate chosen by Berlusconi from the rosa (shortlist) presented to him by Bersani in their final negotiations - namely Franco Marini, who got only 521 votes out of the 672 necessary to gain a two-thirds majority on the first ballot - but not the 101 defectors from the anti-Berlusconi candidate, Romano Prodi, that left him with only 395 votes on the fourth ballot, when a simple absolute majority was required.

If we presume that the new, younger intake reflects the views of the PD’s own youth movement, which has occupied a large number of the PD’s local party offices in the aftermath of the parliamentary party’s betrayal of Prodi, one would have to assume they were opposed to any deal with Berlusconi and well aware that Berlusconi regarded Prodi as his nightmare candidate (Berlusconi had even announced that he would leave the country if Prodi was elected - a statement made not to some inner circle, but to a massive PdL public rally in the city of Bari on April 13). Whilst a purely generational explanation would have intrinsic weaknesses in any event, as any cohort of parliamentarians would include figures from the left, right and centre of the party, even if the relative proportions might differ from earlier generations, it cannot really explain the successive failure of two very different PD candidates representing two opposed political lines.

Prodi debacle

On any rational basis, one would assume that if the PD could not unite behind Franco Marini - a veteran former Christian Democrat who had begun his career in the Catholic trade union confederation, CISL, of which he was for a time general secretary - they would have rallied to Romano Prodi, a former premier who had beaten Berlusconi in the general elections of 1996 and 2006 and served a term as president of the European Commission (and was far better known to and generally respected by the European establishment and the European media). After all, from the fourth round onwards a simple absolute majority of those entitled to vote was all that was required, and the centre-left (PD, SEL, some minor allies) had 496 votes altogether, requiring only another eight votes to gain the magic 504.

This episode reflected so badly on the PD because its entire parliamentary delegation had unanimously agreed to support Prodi - in marked contrast to the stormy scenes earlier last week, when Bersani’s announcement that Berlusconi had agreed to support Marini6 led to widespread dissension, including a walkout by Nichi Vendola’s Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà parliamentarians (who opposed a deal with Berlusconi) and a public declaration by the followers of Florentine mayor Matteo Renzi, the de facto leader of the PD’s right wing, that they would not be voting for Marini (the feud between Marini and Renzi seems to be more a clash of personalities or generations than one of political traditions, since neither of them comes from the wing of the PD connected with the old PCI).

On the surface the whole PD and SEL were united behind Prodi. The centre-right publicly refused to participate in the fourth ballot7 - 732 grand electors were present and the combined total of the centre left, Scelta Civica and Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) is 727; one presumes that the handful of others present were life senators and other anomalous cases. Given that the M5S candidate, Stefano Rodotà, got 213 votes rather than M5S’s 162 and that the Scelta Civica candidate, caretaker interior minister Anna Maria Cancellieri, got 78 rather than Scelta Civica’s 69, it is glaringly obvious that the defectors must have come from the PD - some seem to have voted for Rodotà and others for Cancellieri, but 15 voted for former prime minister Massimo D’Alema.

This would suggest that the widely held view that D’Alema orchestrated Prodi’s downfall, whilst perhaps a slightly exaggerated one, cannot be pure fiction. Renzi claims that he and his followers voted for Prodi, whose candidacy they had promoted in advance, but some commentators, rightly or wrongly, have cast doubt on this and Prodi’s humiliation certainly paved the way for Bersani’s resignation as PD secretary within hours, opening the way for Renzi to make a fresh bid for the leadership.

M5S misjudgement

I will end by commenting on M5S’s role in this tale. M5S had held online primaries to select its presidential candidate and its eligible voters8 came up with a shortlist of 10. Grillo then asked for his name to be removed because of his old manslaughter conviction for deaths resulting from a traffic accident and there was a further online contest between the remaining nine. The first-placed candidate and the runner-up, neither of whom were M5S members, decided relatively quickly that they did not want to run for president, leaving the third name on the list - Stefano Rodotà - as the M5S candidate.

Rodotà, a highly respected 80-year-old law professor, supportive of libertarian causes and publicly hostile to privatisations, had been a member of the Chamber of Deputies from 1979-94 - first as an independent in the lists of the PCI and then after 1991 as a founding member of the PDS (of which he was president in 1991-92). He should on the surface have been acceptable to the PD. In five of the six votes, Rodotà was supported by SEL as well as M5S - the exception being the fourth round, when SEL opted for Prodi.

The most commonly cited reason for the failure of the PD to transfer its official support9 to Rodotà after the Marini fiasco in the first round is that it would have made the PD look as if it was making far too many concessions to Grillo. There may be some truth in this, but Rodotà is in no sense a creature of Grillo - when Grillo briefly flirted with the idea of a mass demonstration in Rome on April 20 in protest against what he described as a ‘coup’ (the re-election of Napolitano), it was Rodotà’s insistence that everybody was bound to accept the constitutional legitimacy of the outcome, however severely they criticised it, that put a stop to Grillo’s wilder schemes, which might well have provoked a riot.

However, there is another possible explanation, dating back to 1992, when Rodotà denounced in writing the corruption of the migliorista wing of the PCI in Lombardy - the wing that had Napolitano as its national reference point. Subsequently Rodotà, who had been deputy speaker of the Chamber, failed to be elected speaker, a post which was soon taken by Napolitano. This sequence of events evidently led to a rift between the two men, which seems never to have been healed: Rodotà showed no inclination to withdraw his candidacy even in the sixth ballot, when it was quite obvious Napolitano would have a clear victory.

Whilst it would be possible to criticise Bersani for not switching his support to Rodotà to create an anti-Berlusconi bloc,10 it could also be pointed out that it might have been tactically wiser for M5S to switch to Prodi in the fourth round - Prodi had figured on its shortlist of nine, albeit near the bottom.

In the short term at any rate, M5S has not profited from its intransigence: in the regional election in Friuli in the aftermath of Napolitano’s re-election, it could only manage third, despite a very energetic round of mass meetings addressed by Grillo on a par with his more successful Sicilian tour last year.



1. Even Paul von Hindenburg was only 84 when he was re-elected president of the Weimar Republic in 1932.

2. In the initial variant, these other forces were clearly Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle. The cooperation would have been around an eight-point reform programme, but subsequently Bersani gave the impression of a willingness to do a deal with the centre-right on a much more opaque basis, in which Berlusconi or his Lega allies would have given abstentions or external support to a centre-left government, presumably in return for a deal on the presidency.

3. ‘Another papal conclaveWeekly Worker April 11.

4. There were a small number of members, such as Giuliano Amato, who had come out of the diaspora of the old Partito Socialista Italiano or from minor political groupings, but in broad terms the PD was an amalgam of the right and centre of the old PCI and the left of the old DC.

5. Whilst the bulk of the electoral college was made up of deputies and senators, it also included a limited number of representatives of the regions, selected by the regional councils.

6. It could be argued that, regardless of the merits (or lack of them) of the strategy of agreeing a candidate with Berlusconi, Bersani made a grave tactical error, since he might have been in a stronger position in relation to his own party if he had allowed his parliamentary delegation to chose a single name to put to Berlusconi for acceptance or rejection rather than allowing Berlusconi to dictate which PD representative would be the candidate.

7. Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Benito and part of the parliamentary bloc headed by Berlusconi’s PdL, ostentatiously wore a T-shirt bearing the slogan: “Il diavolo porta Prodi” (The devil wears Prodi) inside the parliamentary building. Meanwhile, the rightwing demonstration against Prodi outside parliament was dominated by the hard-core neo-Nazis of CasaPound, with some participation by the far-right Fratelli d’Italia and La Destra in a display of neo-fascist unity. The small number of ‘Grillini’ (Grillo supporters) standing alongside them were visibly embarrassed by the fact that the opposition to Prodi was so obviously dominated by the extreme right; the perennial dilemma for any ‘left’ Europhobes.

8. There are allegedly around 40,000 of these; no figures have been given as to how many voted either overall or for particular candidates.

9. In actual fact a number of PD grand electors must have voted for Rodotà; it is impossible to tell whether this was because of a desire to elect a principled leftwinger or to undermine the official PD candidates for less honourable reasons. He got 240 votes in the first round, 230 in the second, 250 in the third, 213 in the fourth, 210 in the fifth and 217 in the sixth. M5S only had 162 votes and SEL, which voted for him on five of the six ballots, have 46 - so his open supporters would have only totalled 208 at most.

10. Although in reality it seems very doubtful that Bersani was in any position to have delivered to Rodotà the votes that he could not deliver to either Marini or Prodi.

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