European Airs: Unity of the Left

By Gaither Stewart – Rome – Paris

Four parties and movements of the quarrelsome and divided Italian Left have allied for the European parliamentary elections next June. That is good news. Communist Refoundation, Party of Italian Communists, Socialism 2000, and United Consumers have agreed to unify their meagre forces in order to surpass the 4% electoral barrier so that Communists, with their red flag with the hammer and sickle emblem, can again sit in the Assembly of the European Union.

For many years now such unity on the Italian Left has been painfully absent, its former voters, bewildered and confused, wandering from center-left to right, in an electoral diaspora. Running separately in national elections in 2006, the two parties using the name Communist garnered a total of 10% of the vote. In comparison to today’s numbers those were the good old days. For during the breakdown of Left unity, proletarians in the Rome periphery even voted for the neo-fascist National Alliance and workers in north Italy cast their votes for the rightwing Northern League. Communists now hope to win back their traditional Left vote that once – though today almost a political relic – counted one-third of the nation’s electorate.

Communist Refoundation chief, Paolo Ferrero, has announced a two-pronged program directed against Silvio Berlusconi and the bankers and entrepreneurs who caused today’s economic crisis, and, in favour of social justice, democracy, a new development model, and the rights of workers, the unemployed and precariously employed.

Across the Alps in France, the European Progressive Front – an idea launched by the French Communist Party (PCF) – has found support from the new Left Party (Parti de Gauche) headed by an ex-Socialist. French Communists, justifiably cautious and fearfull of Socialist deceptions, hope to create a minimum program for a joint electoral ticket for the June European elections. Each of the two parties will remain autonomous. Realists in the PCF Directorate favour this limited unity, agreed to in order to re-elect its two Euro Deputies, a goal which it cannot reach alone. At the same time, others in the PCF favour more durable convergences in order to regain a role on the political scene in France and to end its erratic roving in the desert.

Besides the near extinction of the radical Left in both countries, Italy and France have much in common in these times. Not necessarily as nations or states but in the nature of their political leadership … as well as Sarkozy’s Italian, ex-model become chanteuse, First Lady, Carla Bruni.

In Rome, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who long ago decided that Parliament is unnecessary continues his trip toward Fascism. In Paris, Sarkozy, literally bathing in the wide powers the French President enjoys, though he irritates the rest of Europe with his arrogance, he is the source of envy of his poor cousin, Silvio.

No wonder Berlusconi considers Parliamentary rules as mere obstacles to be overcome! Each time he looks across the Alps at the antics of the free-wheeling Sarkozy, he must grind his teeth. In fact, he hates the rules and procedures that go along with parliamentary systems in general. To save time both for himself and for Italians, he has proposed that only party speakers, i.e. the chiefs of the individual party groups in Parliament, should vote on law bills. Since his party has a huge majority and he personally names most of his deputies anyway, his majority already votes as the chief commands. Nonetheless, such a parliamentary change would amount to nothing less than dictatorship.

In retrospect, the simplicity with which Berlusconi has come to control the country still seems astounding. And Sarkozy must also envy him that special, extra-constitutional control. As the owner of three of Italy’s seven TV networks and the nation’s richest man, he first founded his own political party, over the years he personally has given it its various names according to demands of the times (currently The People of Freedom Party), he nominates his deputies, senators and ministers, governs as much as possible by decrees, and still gets a huge popular vote.

The TV question is exemplary: historically the Italian government controls the three public TV networks. In the case of Berlusconi Prime Minister, however, the matter is vastly different because he also owns the three private networks. Thus one man controls 90% of the nation’s television. Allegedly the new RAI-public TV Board of Directors was named privately in Berlusconi’s own home, which means the chief himself named the bosses of Italian public television.

Similarly, lest one forget, between 1922 and 1925 Benito Mussolini executed his fascistization of the Italian state with similar measures: reinforcement of executive power, limitation of parliamentary and judicial powers, reinforcement of the role of the Premier alone and weakening of parliamentary prerogatives, integration of military and police controls, reduction of political pluralism and trade unions, imposition of the Partito Unico (PNP), and elimination of constitutional rights such as press freedom and the right to strike.

Opposition reactions to Berlusconi’s proposal of the party-speaker-vote in Parliament have been violent but limited in effect. “The confrontation in Parliament and dissenting votes are not just fastidious noises, as the Prime Minister believes,” an opposition spokesman said. “Our chief of government should play an institutional role, in defence of the Constitution and Parliament itself. His proposal has nothing to do with Parliamentary democracy. Our Prime Minister thinks he can govern alone, since, in reality, his ministers are only his emanation. Berlusconi’s authoritarian impulses re-emerge cyclically: his lack of a constitutional culture, his insuppressible dislike for democratic rules and his proprietary vision of the institutions – and that, despite his overwhelming parliamentary majority.”

Even the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini, Berlusconi’s major political partner and boss of the former neo-Fascist National Alliance which recently merged into Berlusconi’s party, said that Berlusconi’s proposal was impossible since it was unconstitutional and could never get the necessary two-thirds vote – another reason, by the way, why Berlusconi wants to scrap or change the Constitution.  

Italian Communists sum up Berlusconi in their comparison of the Prime Minister with Mussolini: His proposal that only group leaders vote in Parliament means elimination of Parliament. After threatening Italy’s President Giorgio Napoletano (for defending the Constitution), after swamping the Chamber of Deputies with decrees so that the executive governs more and more by those decrees, now Berlusconi has launched an attack on Parliament itself, demanding in effect its closure. His goal is always the same: to cancel every space for democracy.

Again in France, last week the Paris leftwing daily, Liberation, revealed President Sarkozy’s embarrassing judgments of several chiefs of state during a lunch with French parliamentarians at Elysée Palace. According to the French President, Spanish chief of government Zapatero is  “perhaps not very intelligent (pas très intelligent), the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel remains “fixed in her own position”, Italian Premier Berlusconi “has been reelected three times,” and Barack Obama is “a subtle spirit who has never headed a ministry in his life.”

Such Sarko-isms were quickly echoed in the international press, including The Guardian and The New York Times, which noted Sarkozy’s love for bragging and his mocking of his colleagues who run the world. The entire Spanish press, including the rightwing ABC, lashed out at Sarkozy for his “superiority complex.” The Paris government issued the usual denials, while the establishment press of France toed the line, preferring partial autocensorship rather than risk their access to the government.
By now the world knows of Sarkozy’s predilection for outlandish statements such as: “There are some very intelligent persons who are always good but yet they are the ones who never get elected.” French people are used to Sarkozy’s methods of tearing down other leaders in order to enhance his own image as the best on the field. But other Europeans and Americans consider his arrogance detestable.

His is most certainly not a superiority complex, but rather the contrary: on one hand, his efforts to be more French than the French themselves because of his Hungarian origins and on the other his inferiority complexes about his limited physical stature. The latter is an important link between him and Berlusconi. One reason he and Berlusconi like to meet in public and be photographed together on the steps of the Elysée Palace must be that neither has to stand on a higher step or a stool or shuffle around in group photos so as not to stand next to a tall Scandinavian. They are both very small men, short, stunted … and ashamed of it. It is curious and often forgotten just how much physique has to do with the art of governing in the age where leaders are always on stage. Maybe short men have to more arrogant than others, which of course hardly speaks well of the quality of political leaders. 

To return to the question of unity of the European Left and the future role of European Communists, I offer this last consideration: Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent reflux of West European Communist Parties, the question facing Communists – especially in Italy and France, Spain and Germany – has been and still is, What should they do after the disappearance of Communism from the world scene? Commit suicide, as one Italian Communist once commentated? 

For at least the last fifteen years it has been claimed that ideologies are dead and that Left and Right are the same. The great rush toward the center of the political specturm would seem to confirm that claim. Yet, today, the reality is that the central social question of reducing inequalities without sacrificing social freedoms has become more critical than ever before. We all know that inequalities have never been greater, and social injustice more rampant. How this question is settled will always distinguish Left from Right. It would seem that the very first step must be pointed toward political unity of the Left.

– Gaither Stewart, Senior Contributing Editor and European Correspondent for Cyrano’s Journal, is a novelist, reporter and essayist on historical and cultural topics. His observations, often controversial, are published on many venues across the web. He contributed this article to

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