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Razor-thin victory for center-left coalition in Italy
The end of Berlusconi

By Elizabeth Schulte | April 21, 2006 | Page 6

THE REIGN of right-wing Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appeared to come to an end after he was narrowly defeated by center-left coalition leader Romano Prodi in voting April 9 and 10.

Prodi was the winner of Italy's election by just 25,000 votes--as Socialist Worker went to press, Berlusconi still refused to concede defeat. The billionaire media mogul, who owns 90 percent of Italy's television airwaves, called for a recount of thousands of ballots and demanded the formation of a broad coalition government, which Prodi has refused.

The election pitted Berlusconi's right-wing coalition, made up of his own Forza Italia party, the neo-fascist National Alliance, the anti-immigrant Northern League and pro-Vatican groups, against Prodi's center-left coalition, the Union, which includes the Christian Democrats, Communists, Rifondazione Comunista and the Greens.

For the most part, this election was a referendum on Berlusconi's five years in office. Voter turnout was at a historically high 84 percent.

Berlusconi came to power promising to turn around Italy's flagging economy, but today, the country's public debt is larger than its gross domestic product, and rising. During his administration, Berlusconi attempted to put the squeeze on workers, raising the age for workers to be eligible for pensions.

He and his administration publicly flouted the law as scandal after scandal unfolded, including accusations of embezzlement, tax fraud, attempting to bribe a judge and dealings with the Mafia.

Berlusconi remained one of a handful of European leaders to continue to support the U.S.-run occupation of Iraq. His administration also followed the Bush administration's lead in passing draconian laws after September 11 that witch-hunted Muslim and Arab immigrants.

In 2002, it approved the tough Bossi-Fini immigration law, which required foreign workers to have existing job contracts before they can obtain residency permits. The law imposed an annual quota on foreign workers, allows the expulsion of undocumented people and requires that employers must hire workers directly from their countries of origin.

During the election, Berlusconi continued to play the anti-immigrant card. "We don't want Italy to become a multiethnic, multicultural country," Berlusconi said on state-run radio in March. "We are proud of our traditions."

This election took place under new laws approved in parliament in December that restored proportional representation--so parliamentary seats are allocated to parties according to how many votes they receive. According to a report from France2 television, Berlusconi's interior minister, Claudio Scajola, called the electoral law a "dirty trick" designed to sink the opposition.

In the election for the lower house of parliament, the 630-seat Chamber of Deputies, the Union won only 25,000 more votes than Berlusconi's coalition, but because of a system that awards bonus seats to the winner, it ended up with a majority of at least 66.

In the Senate, the Prodi coalition's advantage came in part from a new law allotting seats to Italians living abroad, which was passed by the Berlusconi government in the hopes that rich expatriates would vote for the right. Instead, they gave four crucial seats in the upper house to Prodi's Union coalition.

Among the parties that won the most votes were Rifondazione Comunista, which took 5.8 percent in the lower house, and the Communists of Italy, with 2.3 percent.

Now, Italy's President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who is scheduled to step down in May, may decide to give Prodi a mandate to form a new government--or he may decide to hand this responsibility for his successor. Berlusconi doesn't have to resign until April 29 and could possibly remain in office until early June.

Weeks before the election, polls showed that Berlusconi would likely go down. However, the margin of defeat grew narrower and narrower. One reason is likely Prodi's refusal to stake out a clear position on the Iraq occupation or economic issues.

"The electorate was not presented with a clear course of action," commented Britain's Guardian newspaper. "The arch free-marketeer Berlusconi promised an increase in the state pension and greater social protection, not less. Meanwhile, it was the social democrat Prodi who called for a cut in the amount employers pay towards the social security of their workers. Each was trying to wear the clothes of the other...[I]f the right failed to offer a clear program, so did the left. It did not have a distinct vision of its own, one that might counter the neoliberal ideology of privatizations and liberalizations."

Italian workers will have to organize to press for this agenda, regardless of who is in office.

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