• The Turning Point In Italian Politics: The Victory Of The Centre-Left In The Milan Elections

  • Giorgio Riolo | 20 Oct 11 | Posted under: Italy , Elections
  • Preliminary remarks

    During these days of August and September 2011 there has been much discussion in Italy of the famous “moral issue” in politics, naturally not only regarding the corruption and the intertwining of business and politics in the Berlusconi government (P3, P4, etc.), but also the investigations and the charges against Fillipo Penati, a powerful figure of the Democratic Party in Milan and Lombardy. These accusations involve kickbacks, money that he allegedly pocketed for himself and his party while mayor of Sesto San Giovanni, a large town on the outskirts of Milan and once home to large factories. The town is known as the “Stalingrad of Italy” because since World War II it has been administrated by the PCI (Italian Communist Party), and its successors the PDS (Party of the Democratic Left), the DS (Democrats of the Left) and now the PD (Democratic Party).

    Penati was the centre-left candidate for governor of Lombardy in the regional elections of spring 2010. He immediately worked to exclude the PRC (Party of Communist Refoundation (Rifondzione comunista)), now reduced to a small political party after the various splits, from the coalition, and tried unsuccessfully to come to an agreement with the UDC (Democratic Union of the Centre), a political party from the so-called “centre” which arose from the ashes of the former DC (Christian Democrats). To understand the mystery, the true background of this political theatre, it should be remembered that the Formigoni administration (Lombardy governor Roberto Formigoni of the Popolo della Libertà (PDL – People of Liberty), an historic figure of Communion and Liberation (CL), the most organised and structured wing of Italian Catholicism) which has held power in Lombardy for many years, is founded on the business affairs of the Compagnia delle Opere (Company of Works, the economic branch of CL). Nowadays business in Lombardy and Milan is done as in a Mafia economy: in a given place one “family” or one clan, which is also an economic entity, predominates, and then takes 75% of everything and leaves the remaining 25% to the other clans, according to the written or unwritten rules of “coexistence” and “peace” between the various subjects, while also in conflict and in competition. The Company of Works picks up 75% of the work from major operations, infrastructure, health services, services, etc., while the so-called “red cooperatives”, belonging to the PD today (previously to the PCI-PDS-DS, etc.) pick up 25%. In this context it is easy to see how the so-called opposition to Formigoni by a part of the PD is much attenuated and weakened, amounting to a small political theatre. The same happened in relation to Mayor Moratti, PDL, in Milan before Pisapia’s victory.

    These preliminary remarks are meant to convey how hard the severe defeat in the regional elections of spring 2010 hit the left electorate (many disgruntled PD voters and many from the widespread and substantial social left). Many turned to us, Associazione Culturale Punto Rosso, as an association involved for years in the difficult task of left unity, and told us with a view to the road ahead from the summer of 2010 to May 2011, heading towards Milan’s municipal elections, “this time we all go together” with a large coalition ranging from the Democratic Party to Rifondazione comunista. And the hope of many was and is to break with the past, with the “soft” opposition to Formigoni and to Moratti (and in general with the corrupt and corrupting Berlusconi in Italy) and to end the interlacing of business and politics. Pisapia in Milan and, just as significantly, De Magistris in Naples are products of this political and social, but also cultural dynamic, in the “moral” sphere and in “public ethics”, the latter being very difficult to practice in Italy for deep historical reasons (“doppiezza” – ambiguity, insincerity of power – “spagnolismo” – taste for rhetoric and pomp thought typical of the Spanish – of which the 20th-century Sicilian author, Leonardo Sciascia, speaks). With the victories of the June 2011 public referendum on water, the no to nuclear and to the so-called pro-Berlusconi “brief trial”, the swing has been completed, the so-called “Italian Spring”.

    What happened and what Milan are we talking about

    The process that led to the “Italian Spring” – the turning point and reversal of the attraction of Berlusconi’s excessive powers is very particular. As always happens in historical transformation processes, the dynamics are twofold. On the one hand, the “lower strata” do not want to live as they did in the past, while, on the other hand, the “upper classes” can no longer conduct things as they did before (the historians of the French Revolution and Lenin).

    It has been, on the part of the left, a virtuous process. Instead of being discouraged and depressed, taking refuge in apoliticism (for example, the anti-politician movement around comic Beppe Grillo) or absenteeism, as was the case of many left and centre-left voters after the serious defeats of the 2009 and 2010 elections, this time the left’s electorate regained its confidence and the will to participate – it reawakened. Meanwhile, as the PD in June and July of 2010 had not announced its mayoral candidate due to its usual paralysis (often in search of an entrepreneur to propose), the candidacy of Giuliano Pisapia was launched. Pisapia, lawyer and former member of Parliament for Rifondazione comunista, today in SEL (Left Ecology Freedom) whose national leader is Nichi Vendola, was also supported by some of the enlightened Milanese bourgeoisie. During the following months in Milan the old spirit of socialist reformism and above all, in the final outcome, the spirit of Catholic reformism was reawakened. These spirits are the best legacy of what Milan used to be up to the 1980s, the Milan of the working class, of enlightened capitalism, with a fairly cohesive social fabric despite serious inequities, contradictions, etc. With the huge transformations in capitalism and de-industrialisation, Milan was emptied of the presence of blue and white collar workers, factory work, etc. In their place came a shift to the tertiary sector – the services, the professions – and the large influx of capital from the Mafia economy (Milan is full of law firms, notaries, accountants who launder these funds in a myriad of small limited liability companies, in commercial activities and shops, construction companies, etc.). Finally, in parallel to this structural transformation, first with Craxi and then with Berlusconi, the cultural and anthropological hangover arrived, that which Christopher Lasch calls the “culture of narcissism”, the end of every social tie, methodological individualism, social Darwinism. A nasty human and social landscape, capitalist to the core.

    When, in November 2010, Pisapia prevailed in the primaries over Stefano Boeri, the official candidate of the PD, and over Valerio Onida (who came in third in the PD primaries), it was not really very surprising. In favour of Pisapia were the radical (political and social) left, many dissatisfied PD voters and especially the discontented milieus in the world of Catholic Milan, those attuned to the “Church’s social doctrine”. For his victory in the elections of May 2011, Pisapia had the support of the Milanese curia: Cardinal Tettamanzi and especially the Catholic collateralism of the ACLI (Italian Association of Christian Workers), the Charity House and many other social and cultural organisations. Around the time of the elections in May one of the fathers of the Catholic Milanese entrepreneurship, Piero Bassetti, came out in favour of Pisapia, and it is one of the moves that made the so-called Third Pole (Gianfranco Fini and the Future and Freedom Party – who had just broken with Berlusconi –, Pierferdinando Casini and the Democratic Union of the Centre, and Francesco Rutelli’s Alliance for Italy) decide not to indicate preferred candidates to their electorate, leaving many centrist voters free to vote for Pisapia (out of hatred for Berlusconi). Finally, a major figure of Confindustria (Confederation of Italian Industry, the country’s largest employers’ association), Cesare Romiti, former CEO of FIAT and today one of the major owners of Milan’s newspaper par excellence, the Corriere della Sera, came out in favour of Pisapia.

    On the side of the “upper strata” Mayor Letizia Moratti received a historic minimum of votes in the election, not being very well-loved by her own party the PDL, and above all by its ally, the Lega Nord (Northern League), which actually wanted one of its own representatives as the mayoral candidate of the coalition. Many in the Lega Nord base did not vote for Moratti. Several scandals (mild and “normal” for Italy, but important from the point of view of other European citizens) complete the picture of the political and moral weakness with which the right arrived at the elections.

    The victory of Pisapia was very significant. Milan is not just any city; it is the so-called “moral capital” of Italy, thanks to its economic strength, its importance in the country. It was a harsh blow to the dominance of Formigoni in Lombardy. It is always said that Milan is a laboratory that anticipates, for better or worse, the changes that later occur in the rest of Italy.

    The turning point is also due to the victories of the left in Cagliari, Trieste, Turin, etc. and above all of De Magistris in Naples. Should De Magistris manage to accomplish the miracle of creating good government in the other “moral capital”, Italy’s southern “capital”, find a final resolution to the atavistic problem of garbage, the Camorra’s illegal economy (or at least to contain it), and above all, should he be able not to disappoint the great enthusiasm his election has generated, with the mobilisation and participation of ordinary citizens of Naples, then it is truly a sign of change in Italy.

    Open problems and perspectives: it is one thing to win and another to govern

    In June 2011 the second part of the turning point occurred with the victory of the referendum on the privatisation of water, on nuclear power and on partial immunity for Berlusconi and his ministers. This defeat was very painful for Berlusconi and for the Italian right. It is a victory comparable, for its social, political and cultural consequences, to the 1974 victory, in the referendum on divorce, against the Christian Democrats, the Vatican and Italian obscurantist forces.

    But it is one thing to win the elections and another to govern the complex reality of cities like Milan and Naples, all the more so that shortly afterwards the debt crisis and the economic turmoil of this past summer in Italy has put and is still putting these municipal administrations to a severe test. Italian cities, and thus Milan and Naples, no longer have the same economic resources available that they once had (the so-called “transfers” from the state to local administrations) and they must therefore cut many local services, many aspects of welfare, etc. – or they must increase fees and local taxes. And all this is unpopular. Finally, the measures being taken by the Berlusconi government, the so-called “economic manoeuvre”, more precisely the rip-off for Italy’s weaker strata including the lower middle class, among many other things provides for the resumption of privatisation. The moment of the June victory now seems far away and it is as if the referendums have been blotted out. In Milan, the most important local department is the budget department. The real minister of the city’s treasury and the head of the department is Councilman Bruno Tabacci, Piero Bassetti’s man, a representative of the former Christian Democrats and now of the Third Pole. Tabacci discovered that the previous administration has left a budget shortfall of approximately 180 million Euros. Already some of the measures taken by the Pisapia administration have created discontent, such as the increase in public transport rates and in local personal income taxes. In addition, the Penati scandal is interfering considerably with the City Council since the transportation councilman Maran is completely connected to Penati. Many members of this administration have no administrative experience, and this has already become evident; simply being enthusiastic and resorting to the participatory rhetoric of the Pisapia Committees, of the “orange-coloured people” (the popular movement in support of Pisapia), etc., is not enough.

    However, to understand if in fact the “wind has changed” , it will be necessary to wait for this winter of 2011-2012, since many things will become clearer then, in the first place in terms of what the administration will decide about Expo 2015 (big real-estate deals, urban structures, mafia infiltration, etc.)

    The challenge that the centre-left is facing in Milan is a big one. The enthusiasm aroused has been enormous. The disappointment that may result is just as great. But there remains one of the historical problems of the Italian left: beyond the rhetoric and the magniloquence (one of the champions of this Italian tradition is Nichi Vendola) there needs to be the ability to govern, to test oneself daily against real problems, tenaciously maintaining a commitment to left politics without succumbing to the temptation to do right-wing things using left-wing phraseology (for example, privatisation).

    One final note: Each country has its own peculiarities of historical development. Italy has long-term characteristics that must be known and understood, beyond the fact that it is a capitalist centre located in Western Europe. One of these peculiarities is also at the origins of the unified state of Italy: the gattopardian “everything must change so that everything can stay the same”.2 Pisapia, De Magistris and in general the “Italian Spring” will have to deal with this unhealthy tradition. The crisis of capitalism and the debt crisis could eventually cancel out everything.


    1. In the 2010 regional elections, the centre-right won in Piedmont, the Veneto, Lazio, Lombardy, Campania and Calabria; in Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Liguria, the Marches, Umbria, Basilicata and Apulia the centre-left prevailed.
      In the 2011 municipal elections the centre-left won: Giuliano Pisapia, the candidate of a broad left-wing coalition, won the second ballot in Milan with 55.1% of the votes. In Naples, Luigi De Magistris won all along the line with more than 65% of the preference votes against Lettieri (an entrepreneur representing a centre-right coalition supported by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
      Referendum: A nationwide popular referendum was held in Italy on June 12 and 13, 2011 on four questions concerning privatisation of water services (two questions), a return to nuclear energy which had been banned by the 1987 referendum, and criminal procedure, specifically a provision exempting the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers from prosecution while in office. The first aim of those campaigning for a yes vote was to ensure reaching the quorum (50% of the electorate + 1 person).
    2. The dictum repeated by the main character in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard [Il Gattopardo], a novel of changes in Sicilian society during the Risorgimento.

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