A Ray of Hope from Vicenza

Just when it seemed things could get no worse on the Italian political landscape following the first round of elections, run-off elections this past Sunday and Monday proved the contrary. But the northern city of Vicenza, home to a vibrant citizens’ movement against a second US military base in their city, proved to be the silver lining.

Round One

In the mid-April elections that came after the collapse last January of the center-left government led by Romano Prodi, the center-right coalition led by media magnate, billionaire and staunch Bush ally Silvio Berlusconi not only beat out former Rome Mayor and leader of the newly formed Democratic Party, Walter Veltroni, but also with a very comfortable 9-point lead.

In a campaign run on fear of immigrants, aided by the all too fresh memory of the Prodi government that managed disillusion across the board, and with the benefit of his 3 television networks, Berlusconi’s newly formed coalition, Popolo della libertà, People of Freedom – comprised of his Forza Italia party and Alleanza Nazionale, which has its roots in the neo fascist party MSI – together with the Lega Nord, Northern League, gained a whopping 98 seat margin in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, and 42 in the Senate.

With Forza Italia and Alleanza Nazionale running under the umbrella of Popolo della Libertà, which aims to become a full fledged party this year, the numbers for individual parties are unclear. This is not the case, however, of the xenophobic Lega Nord, which chose to retain its identity and managed to double its numbers from the 2006 elections, scoring as much as 27% in Veneto and over 20% in Lombardy, and making a decisive contribution to the right’s victory.

And for the first time in the Italian Republic’s 60-year history, there will be no Communist party represented in Parliament. With the formation of the center-left Democratic Party, which shut out more left leaning former allies, Italy’s two communist parties, Rifondazione Comunista and Comunisti Italiani, together with the Green Party and the Socialists created their own coalition, the Rainbow Left. However with only 3% of the vote, they failed to gain a single seat. Rifondazione alone had over 7% of the vote in 2006. Political cartoonist Vauro summed it up nicely with panda asking the Greens, “And you wanted to save us?”

The elimination of the Italian left from the political scene can be attributed in part to the voto utile, or useful vote, with the two major forces in this election calling on voters to not waste their vote on smaller parties or coalitions. Dario Franceschini of the Democratic Party went so far as to summon the specter of Ralph Nader’s bid for the 2000 US elections to make the point. And the Rainbow Left’s 2008 campaign as a balancing force to an eventual broad coalition between Veltroni and Berlusconi failed to garner votes.

But it was also due to the voto critico, or critical vote, as a part of their voters simply didn’t show up at the polls or chose to put a blank ballot in the box. By participating in the more centrist Prodi government, the leftist parties had hoped to push it to the left, but instead ended up alienating their base. Under Prodi, parliament failed to re-write Berlusconi’s labor laws, voted to continue financing the military mission in Afghanistan and to send troops to Lebanon. Prodi further signed on to such “winning” US military projects as the F-35 fighter jet – the most expensive weapons program in history – and the Missile Defense System. In addition, military spending increased by 23% in two years and construction of the new US military base in Vicenza was approved in spite of strong national and local opposition.

The smaller parties of the far right fared no better. There has been a move over the past years away from a the fragmented system of numerous small parties forming coalitions that went from center to far left and right toward more of a two party system. It all culminated last autumn, as the fall of the teetering Prodi government became imminent, with the formation of the Partito Democratico followed by the creation of the Popolo della Libertà coalition.

This less fragmented system resulting from the elections has been praised by many, as the sprawling coalitions made it difficult to govern: Italy has had 62 governments since WWII. However, others are concerned this lack of representation for large slices of society will lead to further radicalization of the extra parliamentary left and right.

Round Two

The political elections had been combined with already scheduled administrative elections for what was dubbed Election Day, where 2 regional, 9 provincial, 71 city governments were on the line. The majority of these contests were settled in run-off elections held this past Sunday and Monday. And the right’s victory turned into a triumph. Prior to elections, the center-left governed 42 cities and the center-right 24. The situation was inverted, with the center-right now governing 43 and the center-left 24.

But the biggest defeat by far took place in the capital. Just three days after the Festa di Liberazione, which celebrates the liberation of Italy from Nazi-Fascism, Rome elected a mayor who began his political career in the neo-fascist MSI party.

Though he lost by over 5 points in the first round, Gianni Alemanno of the Alleanza Nazionale party, which was founded in 1995 by Gianfranco Fini after he dissolved MSI, came back to win by over 7 points in the run-off against Democratic Party candidate Francesco Rutelli, mayor of Rome prior to Veltroni, but more recently Minister of Cultural Heritage in Prodi’s government. On Wednesday, Fini was elected President of the Chamber of Deputies.

Monday evening, as the results became clear, supporters gathered on the Campidoglio, seat of the city government, to celebrate the results. Photos of young men with arms stretched out in the saluto romano, or fascist salute, covered the newspapers the next day. Alemanno and Fini are trying to distance themselves from their neo-fascist history, but those photos will remain in the minds of Romans for some time.

The success of the right in Rome’s run-off elections can be attributed in part to the success of the national elections two weeks ago. And just as the national campaign was run on fear of immigrants, so it was in Rome. However, there was also some fatigue after 15 years of Rutelli and Veltroni, evidenced also by the win of Partito Democratico candidate Zingaretti in Rome’s provincial elections, and many believe voters of the Rainbow Left simply didn’t show up at the polls.

It would be comforting to chalk all this up to electronic voting. However, Italians vote by marking a paper ballot with a pencil; the ballots are then counted by hand in front of observers from all parties. And while Berlusconi did have a distinct advantage as the owner of three television networks and several newspapers and periodicals, Italy also has a par condicio law, which guarantees equal time to all political parties, so television viewers heard from everyone from the far left to the far right. The par condicio also prohibits polling in the final 15 days and political rallies or television appearances the day before the elections in a welcome “day of silence.”

This law may soon become a thing of the past, though. Berlusconi blasted it as “undemocratic” throughout the elections, going on to praise the system in the US, which awards the person who has raised the most money, as more democratic.

The Silver Lining

Against this bleak backdrop, a ray of hope shines through. In the northern city of Vicenza, the citizen activists of the Presidio permanente No Dal Molin, who have been working for two years to block construction of a second US military base in their historic city, decided just weeks before the elections to form a lista civica, a municipal list with no party affiliation. Cinzia Bottene, who has become and icon of the movement and one of its the leaders from the start, ran as candidate for mayor, and 40 others from the Presidio as candidates for city council.

In the first round, the Vicenza Libera No Dal Molin list made a spectacular showing, gaining close to 5% of the vote, ahead of national parties such as the centrist UDC and the Rainbow Left. Bottene didn’t get enough votes in her bid for mayor, but she will have a seat on city council.

As with all decisions made by the movement, the discussions on whether or not to form the list took place at public assemblies at the Presidio, or permanent encampment, headquarters for the movement. Not all were in favor, with some concerned about mixing movement and politics, but in the end the argument that the movement, which has been experimenting an open participatory democracy for some time, should take that practice to the local government won out.

The Vicenza Libera list had an opportunity to test the waters in late February when they collected 6178 signatures in one day – they were hoping for 1000 – in support of the movement after several exponents had been placed under investigation for non violent activism against the new military base.

In the short time Vicenza Libera had to campaign, they focused on three main points: policies of peace, defense of true democratic principles and the protection of the environment. The issue of the environment was at the forefront just days after presenting the list when a pipeline, which supplies the US air base at Aviano with kerosene from the port of Livorno and the US base at Camp Darby, broke near Vicenza, contaminating the rivers Astichello and Bacchiglione.

The movement never took a backseat to the campaign. In fact, on the last day for campaigning, the activists and candidates of the Presidio traveled to Ravenna and the offices of the cooperative CMC, which had just been awarded the Euro 245 million contract to build the new military base in Vicenza. “Only crazy people like us would leave the city on the final day of the campaign,” commented Cinzia Bottene. The fact that U.S. Naval Facilities Engineering Command chose to award the deal to CMC, a cooperative close to the parties of the center left, did not come as a surprise. What better way to guarantee bi-partisan support!

In the first round of voting in Vicenza, no candidate gained more than 50% of the vote, so a run-off pitted Popolo della Libertà candidate Lia Sartori, with 39%, against former Vicenza mayor Achille Variati, with 31%.

As the parties and lists of the right started making alliances for the run- off, Variati began to court Vicenza Libera, knowing just how valuable their votes would be. Variati, a candidate of the Partito Democratico, which has already said the question of the base is closed, had been speaking out against the base, and long before the election campaign, in particular the less than democratic manner in which the issue had been handled.

Vicenza Libera had made their position clear from the start, with no intention of joining forces with any political party, nor accepting any political appointments in exchange for support. “We are not for sale,” said Bottene. Adding that the only way for him to gain their support would be to take a strong stand against the base and commit to opposing the base if elected.

A delegation from Vicenza Libera met with Variati. He made three pledges: to revoke the city council measure approving the base, to hold a referendum on the new base, something the movement had been requesting for almost two years, and to ask for a moratorium on construction until the results of the referendum are known. Variati is very familiar with the determination of the movement to hold politicians to account, so there is hope that this is not simply an empty campaign promise. Vicenza Libera asked their supporters to vote for Variati.

And it did the trick. In an unexpected turn of events, Variati won, 50.5% to 49.5%; a major victory in a region considered to be a stronghold of the right. The main square of Vicenza filled with celebration, and the predominant flag was that of No Dal Molin.

Cinzia Bottene now finds herself in a somewhat unusual situation. Though the issue of the new base at Dal Molin was a determining factor in Variati’s victory, she is technically part of the opposition – Vicenza Libera is independent and therefore not part of the majority – and will be seated together with the center right council members. But she was voted in because of her unwavering position against the base and commitment to represent the citizens of Vicenza, making the issue of where she is seated a minor detail. “Our desire is not to gain power but to ‘open’ the city council to the people.”

Tuesday night following the elections, at the weekly assembly of the Presidio, which continues to draw hundreds of citizens, they celebrated and speculated on future careers for the now out of work city council members. But the celebration came only after issuing a press release calling on Variati to respect the pact and oppose the base. The following day, it was back to work on what everyone realizes is a struggle far from over.

STEPHANIE WESTBROOK is a founding member of U.S. Citizens for Peace & Justice in Rome, Italy and currently serves on the group’s coordinating committee. She can be reached at: info@peaceandjustice.it