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Italian General Election: An Anti-Government Vote

“IF WE LEAVE THIS PARTY in the hands of these leaders (Bersani, D’Alema) they will take the PD down to below 25%,” thundered Renzi, the leader of the ‘social democratic’ PD (Democratic Party) at the 2016 congress in Florence. On 4th March the PD, under his leadership, slumped to 18.7% of the vote. Renzi has now resigned.

The big winners were the Five Star Movement (M5S) which became the single biggest party with 32.5% and the racist Lega, led by Salvini on 17.4%

The electorate angrily rejected austerity. Nobody predicted the further advance of the M5S movement given the problems it had with its recently elected mayors in Rome and Turin and with its candidate selection. It became the biggest winner in the poorer Italian south.

Around 10 million Italians are in relative or absolute poverty, with 30% of young adults unemployed. Welfare, unemployment and pension payments do not exist or are very low. No wonder the M5S proposal of a citizen’s basic welfare payment of around 800 euros a month struck a real chord. Currently the PD denounces such policies as extremist and unaffordable. The M5S built its support on the call to remove the political caste and change the system so that it becomes less expensive, more transparent and clean. It assumes that once these politicians are removed, and people like them are elected and accountable online, then the system will change. For this reason it has no real connection with the labour movement and indeed has placed trade unions within the caste.

However, it does champion some progressive demands, such as opposition to wasteful big public works, pension cuts and Renzi’s anti-worker Jobs Act. But it has also hardened its position on immigration controls and has taken on some of the “Italians first” rhetoric.

The selection of the youthful Di Maio as the prime ministerial candidate paid off well. He is from the south, appears to be outside the ageing political caste and has changed M5S from protesters to a government in waiting. Much of its increase in votes comes from ex-PD voters and its electorate is the youngest with the longest education. Most of them consider themselves liberal progressives. It cannot be characterised as some sort or Faragist or proto-fascist group.

But the other big winner, Salvini’s Lega, certainly can. Salvini, who poses as the anti-intellectual anti-politician, has successfully transformed the Lega Nord into the Lega. All the picturesque visions of an independent northern ‘Padania’ were ditched in favour of usurping the Berlusconi leadership of the centre-right throughout Italy. During the election campaign an ex-Lega candidate shot six migrants in Macerata after a young Italian woman was murdered by an immigrant.

Salvini, rather than condemning the murderer, actually blamed the rise in migrants for the situation. In 2013 his party won barely 1% in Marcerata; on March 4th it won more than 20%. Like Farage, his attacks on migrants, linking them to insecurity and crime, worked. Like the M5S in the south, he mopped up large numbers of ex-PD voters in the north.

Opposition to the PD’s broad pro-austerity coalition with Berlusconi was expressed rather limply by the Free and Equal coalition composed of the latest split from the PD. You could compare Bersani, D’Alema and Grasso to Ed Miliband’s partial break with the Blairite project. Like Miliband they failed to resonate, since they had been identified for many years as managers of austerity. Grasso even visited Corbyn in London (unremarked by any news agency here!) for a photo op to gain some reflected kudos. They just managed to get into Parliament, sneaking over the 3% threshold.

There was a glimmer of hope for the labour movement with the new radical left movement, Power to the People, formed a few months ago, which called for rebuilding the left and resistance. They got only 1.2%, but there are now 100 local committees, with many young people and the chance to help strengthen a real left. It received endorsements from many of the new left formations in Europe such as Mélenchon’s France Insoumise and Podemos in Spain.

Any left movement in Italy has to be independent from the PD and rebuild solidarity and resistance in the unions and communities. It will fail if it just emerges for elections. At the moment both Di Maio and Salvini are strutting about claiming they can form a government, but the numbers do not add up for either of them. There are calls for a new electoral law to replace the new one they have just used. The crisis the establishment is experiencing in many European countries since the recession continues here - alongside the dire situation of the left, trade union weakness and the ‘pasokification’ of mainstream social democracy. 

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