Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

The demonstrators who’ve been disrupting the progress of the Olympic torch around the world have found an unwelcome ally in the Italian far right. Last month, Forza Nuova cashed in on the popularity of the ‘flame of shame’ protests to organise a rally of their own outside the Chinese embassy in Rome. Their leader, Roberto Fiore, expressing outrage at the treatment of the Tibetans, called for the immediate severing of diplomatic relations between China and Italy and a boycott of the games by Italian athletes. The ulterior motive for his unlikely concern for Tibet isn’t hard to make out: one of his campaign slogans calls for ‘un’Italia senza extracomunitari’ (an Italy without non-Europeans, which would mean getting rid of the 200,000 or so Chinese immigrants who live here).

A few days ago, walking through the Piazza Repubblica in the town where I live an hour or so north of Rome, I stumbled across a small group of Forza Nuova supporters who were just setting out on a march. There were only about a dozen of them, all young men, waving their neofascist banners, the letters FN emblazoned in black italic script on a red and white background. For about half a second I felt like Isherwood in Berlin in the early 1930s. Then I reminded myself that the most right-wing of the 16 parties competing for my neighbours’ votes at the beginning of next week has no chance of coming to power. In the 2006 general election, Forza Nuova was a member of the Alternativa Sociale, a coalition headed by Alessandra Mussolini which won less than 0.7 per cent of the vote – about the same as the BNP in Britain in 2005 – and no seats in either the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate. Still, for a party nobody votes for, they make a lot of noise.

Not as much noise, however, as the lot who are leading the polls, Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (People of Freedom), his old Forza Italia with a facelift. A couple of days after Forza Nuova’s motley march-past, a PDL candidate took over Piazza San Giuseppe to harangue a small crowd of supporters and passers-by. It was a far more modest affair than Berlusconi’s big-city extravaganzas: no young lovelies in their scanties, just a man with a megaphone. ‘Security is the first right of every citizen,’ he proclaimed, before accusing the left of stealing ideas from the right. He had a point: Walter Veltroni’s centre-left Partito Democratico is promising tax cuts and a drop in public spending. Veltroni, until very recently the mayor of Rome, openly acknowledges Tony Blair as a role model, though unlike Berlusconi he’s never invited him on holiday.

Berlusconi, meanwhile, says he’ll cut taxes and red-tape and spend the money on such (vanity) projects as building a bridge to Sicily and clinging onto Alitalia, which is currently losing a million euros a day. (The idea that the country needs a flag-carrier airline is as ridiculous, if not as deadly, as Mussolini’s notion 80 years ago that it needed a few new colonies. Perhaps some arrangement could be made with British Airways, whereby BA fly the planes but outsource their baggage handling to Milan.) Less clear is what either Berlusconi or Veltroni intends to do about the national debt. The largest in Europe, it stands at €1.6 trillion, or 104 per cent of GDP, and costs €70 billion a year in interest payments.

The two chief contenders for the unenviable job of being Italy’s prime minister don’t only have similar policies; their electoral tactics have a fair amount in common, too. Soon after these elections were announced, following the collapse of Romano Prodi’s coalition government in January, Veltroni declared that the PD – created last year by the merger of the Democratici della Sinistra with seven smaller parties – would be running more or less alone. In 2006, the DS were at the head of a ramshackle alliance of every party that could be bundled together under the label ‘left’. Prodi’s government fell when the centrist Popolari UDEUR withdrew after its leader had to resign from the cabinet because he was being investigated on corruption charges. Reckoning he was likely to lose in any case – the electorate had lost patience with Prodi after only 20 months in power, as if that was plenty of time to sort out Berlusconi’s mess – Veltroni decided instead to do without his troublesome partners. Like the creation of the PD, this is part of the centre-left’s attempt to turn the system into something closer to a manageable bipartisan one.

Soon afterwards, it transpired that Berlusconi isn’t running with all of his old allies either. Alessandra Mussolini’s on-board, but Forza Nuova is not. More significantly, the Unione dei Democratici Cristiani e di Centro are going it alone, with the unsurprising support of the Vatican. Without the Catholic vote, Berlusconi’s chances are diminished, if not by enough to stop him topping the ballot. By the time this issue of the LRB is published, he’ll almost certainly have won. He’s very unlikely to have an outright majority, however: the cobbling together of coalitions has not been abandoned, only postponed.

To see who I would vote for, were I able to, I filled out a questionnaire on La Repubblica’s website, which asked for my views on a range of issues from abortion, civil partnerships, assisted reproduction and euthanasia to immigration, nuclear power, privatisation, unions, taxation and the war in Iraq. Apparently I fall somewhere between the Sinistra l’Arcobaleno (a ‘rainbow’ coalition of left-wing parties) and the Sinistra Critica. Neither has any real chance, so the question was doubly academic. I made a mental note to register as an overseas voter before Brown calls a general election in Britain. It was, after all, the votes of Italians abroad that tipped the Senate Prodi’s way in 2006.

[*] In the event, Berlusconi did win with an outright majority in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Apart from the Südtiroler Volkspartei in the autonomous province of Bolzano and Autonomie Liberté Democratie in the Valle d'Aosta, two Alpine redoubts where the rules are different, of the smaller parties only the UDC won enough support to qualify for seats in either house. It would seem that the men of the centre left have found the stability they were looking for; too bad they'll have to endure it in opposition.