As Italian trade unions prepare for a general strike later this month against public spending cuts, political tensions are once again rising within the unstable edifice that is the Italian state.
The background is the slow-motion collapse of the right-wing government led by Silvio Berlusconi, and the ruling classes’ desperate requirement for a stable regime that can carry through austerity measures.
Berlusconi is increasingly at odds with his coalition partners. Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of the Lower House and co-founder with Berlusconi of the ruling Party of Liberty, has formed a faction called Generation Italy and is manoeuvring for power.
The head of Italy's Northern League, a key ally of Berlusconi, has predicted the government will fall. Umberto Bossi, whose anti-immigrant party made strong gains in March regional elections, backed Berlusconi in his battle with Fini.
Meanwhile, public figures are taking the opportunity to remind the public of the plots aimed at destabilising the state during the 1990s and a clampdown on media freedom by the corrupt Berlusconi government has provoked a furious reaction.
Under Berlusconi, telephone eavesdropping reached some of the highest levels in Europe. But now Berlusconi has decided that enough was enough after journalists published leaks that caught him and his cronies out.
Guido Bertolasi, the head of the Civil Protection Service, and Angelo Balducci, senior officials in the country’s public works department, have both been implicated in scandals as a result of leaked phone taps. Balducci was recorded arranging a date with a young Vatican choir singer.
A new gagging law is being driven through the Italian parliament which, far from offering protection from intrusive state snooping, will benefit corrupt politicians and Mafiosi. The “legge bavaglio” (gagging law) will restrict magistrates from using phone taps. But not only will the courts be affected. Journalists who publish material from leaks will risk heavy fines.
Parliamentarians, newspaper editors, journalists and 220,000 individuals have registered their opposition through the Aavaz website. A post-it note campaign by the Repubblica newspaper has drawn widespread support. The editor of the Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper, Ferruccio de Bortoli, believes that “there’s no other reason [for the new law] beside fear of further investigations that could involve members of the government.”
Press freedom website, Reporters Without Borders, points out: “The jail sentence and the size of the fines that can be imposed is out of all proportion and has to be considered as a real censorship. How many news organisations would dare to carry out this kind of investigative reporting if they knew they were risking this kind of financial bombshell?”
With political anxiety on the rise, national anti-Mafia attorney Piero Grasso and ex-presidents Carlo Ciampi and Oscar Scalfaro took the opportunity last week to speak of their fears of a coup d’état during the early 1990s and the existence of elements within the state itself working with the Mafia to undermine the government.
Scalfaro, who was president of the Italian republic from 1992-1999, said there had been “a political vacuum… which is the greatest weakness of a democratic state. It would be difficult for any state to rule under these conditions.”
Social tensions are rising as the recession takes its toll. Youth unemployment has reached a record 30% nationally. Attacks on immigrants and gays have been on the rise in recent months, especially in the capital.
The election of pro-fascist Gianni Alemanno as mayor of Rome in 2008 was taken by the far right as a signal to launch their attacks. "These thugs don't get any support from the town hall, but they feel justified and encouraged by the political climate," said Flavia Servadei, who runs the gays Coming Out bar.
Berlusconi, 73, who is notorious for his efforts to appear young, has just invested £40 million in a biotech company researching how to prevent ageing. He took advantage of the disarray in the state to return to power in 2008. But despite Berlusconi’s efforts to live forever, there are even darker forces waiting in the wings.
A World to Win secretary