New Times, 17 October 1997
Most of the British press had no doubt who was responsible for the collapse of Italy's centre-left government last week: the unreconstructed hard-line Marxists of Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation). They refused to tone down their opposition to the government's plans for cuts in pensions – part of its attempt to ensure that Italy qualifies for first-wave membership of European economic and monetary union – and thus left prime minister Romano Prodi facing the prospect of losing a parliamentary vote on the budget.
The story is a little more complicated than that, however. It is true that Rifondazione, led by the stubborn Fausto Bertinotti, includes some real political fossils. It is also true that it was intransigent in its insistence that the government make some concession to secure its support in parliament.
But by no means everyone in Rifondazione is a diehard Stalinist, and winning concessions from the government is what Bertinotti and his comrades see as their job. In the April 1996 general election, which gave Italy a left-dominated government for the first time, Rifondazione, created by members of the old Italian Communist Party (PCI) who opposed its transformation into the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) in 1991, won nearly 9 per cent of the vote. That gave Rifondazione 35 seats in the chamber of deputies – enough to make it an essential ally of the PDS-dominated "Olive Tree" coalition whenever the right and the regionalist Lega Nord voted together in parliament.
Until discussions began on the budget, Rifondazione was broadly supportive of the government, flexing its muscles only intermittently. But it consistently made clear that it would not back large-scale reductions in welfare spending merely to allow Italy to take part in EMU. Bertinotti and his party would have lost the substantial credibility that they have patiently built up with working-class voters if they had not used all their leverage over pension rights. Italy's economy is doing well, and many voters do not see why they should go through yet another bout of austerity.
Equally important, Rifondazione was not the only one playing intransigent over the budget. Bertinotti had made it clear that, although he needed a concession, he was open to suggestions about what precisely it should be – and it is likely that agreement could have been reached had it not been for the inflexibility of PDS leader Massimo D'Alema.
D'Alema was quite happy to see the collapse of the government because he wants an early general election, which he believes would return a PDS-centre government that would not have to rely on the support of Rifondazione – and would thus have far greater freedom of manoeuvre.
He might be right. The main right-wing party, Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, is doing poorly in the opinion polls and is tainted with corruption. There is a good chance that the Olive Tree coalition, making the most of the voter-appeal of its latest recruit, Antonio Di Pietro, the investigating magistrate who became a popular hero for his pursuit of political corruption in the early 1990s, would make substantial inroads into the territory formerly occupied by the Christian Democrats.
There is, however, a big problem with D'Alema's strategy. The president of the republic, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, who alone has the power to appoint prime ministers and dissolve parliament, does not want a snap election and is doing all he can to create a new government without one. If he succeeds, D'Alema will not be easily forgiven by many in the PDS for the part he played in throwing power away.