In Italy’s recent general election, the right-wing Casa delle Liberta (‘House of Liberties’ Party or CL) dealt a severe blow to the new centrist Partito Democratico (Democratic Party, or PD). The CL – a coalition of the fascist National Alliance (AN) and the Forza Italia Party of magnate Silvio Berlusconi – beat the PD by 10 points. Strikingly, for the first time since the end of fascism, there will be no Communist representation in Parliament. In Rome, AN leader Gianni Alemanno beat the PD’s Francesco Rutelli to become mayor.

This disaster is the fruit of two years of creeping conservatism on the part of the previous Center-Left government of Romano Prodi, which won office in hotly contested elections in 2006 on a platform of anti-corporate reform. Prodi’s governing coalition was extremely heterogeneous, running from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (UDC) to the Communist Refoundation (RC). This troublesome situation was exacerbated by the coalition’s razor-thin majority in the Senate – 5 out of 322 seats – and by the fact that the two major coalition partners were in the midst of the contentious PD merger.

Political maneuvering on Prodi’s part quickly worsened the situation. Rather than hold to the approved anti-corporate agenda, Prodi yielded to pressure from Italy’s Manufacturers’ Association, Confindustria, whose leader lent strategic support in the election’s closing days. Thus Prodi opened his ”reform’ offensive with measures attacking the embattled small-capital sector – the social base of the Coalition’s moderate wing – and not the corporations. A month later, he extended the campaign to the taxi industry, provoking a nationwide confrontation which paralyzed Italy’s major cities. AN leaders quickly co-opted the protests while Prodi’s approval rating plummeted.
The left found itself in an impossible situation. On the one hand, it supported the government as, to quote Oliviero Diliberto, General Secretary of the Party of Italian Communists (PdCI),”the best scenario under existing conditions” and ”the only alternative to the far right’. On the other hand, the government had abandoned its program and was attacking its own base. In 2007 the left initiated a struggle to (successfully) redefine Italy’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan to peacekeeping. A second initiative, to hold the line on pension ”reform’, brought conflict with the country’s largest labor federation, the progressive Italian General Labor Confederation (CGIL). While workers in heavy industry backed the left proposals, most backed Prodi.

It is characteristic that in the midst of all this Diliberto declared that ”if this government falls, it will not be because of the Communists.’ Yet the PdCI and left came under intense attack from leading progressive media – la Repubblica, Italy’s largest daily, and l’Unita’, both close to the PD – for ”undermining’ the government; while the right-wing characterized the government as a hostage of “extremists’. The PD – heir to the right wing of the old Communist Party– used the anti-left furor to push for a bipolar political system which would eliminate the Communist left permanently. One of the great ironies of the current situation is that many Communists did, indeed, vote for the PD in a desperate move to stave off a right-wing victory. Yet without the support of the full range of the country’s democratic forces there was no numerical hope of beating out the fascists. The PD traded the country’s political fortunes for its own immediate gain.

It remains to be seen what the far right can accomplish. Italy remains a divided country with few options for immediate economic development. While pockets of heavy industry and technology exist in the North, much of the country is underdeveloped. Conditions in the South are still largely those of the 1960s. Communist Party founder Antonio Gramsci observed 90 years ago that Italy’s Democratic Question revolves around bringing the South’s economy into the present. This fight constituted the core of the old Communist Party program, which in turn was a major unifying force toward which all democratic forces gravitated. To paraphrase Pietro Ingrao, only a vast popular alliance would be capable of putting together the resources needed for such an enormous task. The rise of the EU in the 1980s led to an alternate proposal – massive EU input to modernize the South – which effectively split this coalition. Yet this dream has also evaporated, as EU funding moved eastward to focus on the economies of the ex-Soviet bloc. In the North, many have responded with a go–it-alone mentality of jettisoning the South; while elsewhere the country has sunk into an ideological quagmire.

There is no question that Italy’s progressive forces have missed an historic opportunity to address fundamental issues to the country’s development. Certainly, the”Italian Obama’ (as PD presidential candidate Walter Veltroni took to calling himself) and his coterie of old-fashioned Cold Warriors bear a heavy responsibility in this. But Italian progressives have seen much darker days and fought their way back. The question of the economic development of Italy’s South will not go away. Socialism remains the only viable long-term path to the country’s future.