What Is Left in Italy?

The Italian left, set to take over for the first time, won last week's elections with the help of passion, not with an orderly plan.

A new era starts in Italy this week. For the first time since World War II - in fact, for the first time ever - all institutions of power in Italy will be in the hands of the center-left: the presidency, the premiership, and the heads of Parliament and the Senate. The new president, Giorgio Napolitano, who was elected less than a week ago, took over his official duties on Monday, and today he will call on Romano Prodi to form the new Italian government. Prodi, the joint candidate of the leftist and centrist parties, won last month's general elections, bringing an end to the era of Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister.

The term center-left understates the real, historical significance of this moment. For example, at the head of the lower house of parliament stands Fausto Bertinotti, a member of the Communist Refoundation Party, which is situated at the extreme left of the European political spectrum. The new president, Napolitano, was for many decades one of the most prominent leaders of the Italian Communist Party, which, until it changed its name in the early 1990s, prided itself on being the largest Communist party in Western Europe.

The Communist past of this party, whose official name is today Democrats of the Left, is deeply carved in Italians' consciousness, a fact extensively used by Berlusconi in his recent populist election campaign. He nearly succeeded with this strategy. Notwithstanding the failures of his economic policies and his unpopular decision to involve Italy in the war in Iraq, Berlusconi lost the elections by just over 20,000 votes. The fear of the "communists," real or imagined, nearly resulted in his victory. And the same aversion to communism nearly aborted Napolitano's candidacy for the presidency, even though he is one of the most respected and reasonable individuals in Italian politics.

The Italian left, and the Communist Party at its core, are both an impressive success story and a major failure. Thanks to the special and genuine connection between intellectuals, peasants and workers, which in part resulted from the common struggle against fascism, this left managed to create a deep sense of solidarity and loyalty among broad segments of the public on one hand, and enormous cultural creativity on the other. It is no coincidence that the greatest artists of Italian culture - from Federico Fellini to Pier Paolo Pasolini, from Italo Calvino to Elsa Morante - emerged from this special connection.

But this left did not know how to win power, how to convince the Italians that it was capable of running the government, not just rebelling against it. Italy is a conservative country, with a powerful church, many small businessmen and lots of Mafia. The Italian Communists were the first in Western Europe to oppose the Soviet Union following the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, but they did not know how to adjust to a world of post-ideological politics. "We were stuck with the false notion that the Communist Party is a revolutionary force," Napolitano said in a recent interview.

Now this left is in power. Not by chance is a man with no Communist past at its head. Prodi, who promised to complete the formation of his government in "a few hours," has been a technocrat for most of his life; he turned to the left only after the Christian Democratic Party, to which he belonged, collapsed following revelations of corruption during the late 1980s. The Italian left - which includes two Communist parties that still retain that name and that received about 10 percent of the total votes - recognized that in order to win power, it needed to move to the center. In 1996, the center-left coalition headed by Prodi won the elections, but quickly fell apart as a result of attacks from the left. This time, that will not happen, at least not any time soon.

The question Italians ask is, "what does the left have to offer, now that it is in power after so many years in opposition?" It is hard to say that they are getting a clear answer. Prodi's economic plans are fairly conservative: lowering the deficit and foreign debt without raising taxes. Prodi is also not likely to do away with the law that permits short-term employees to be dismissed with almost no restrictions, a law that closely resembles the one recently withdrawn in France following mass demonstrations. All in all, Prodi is promising to be a little more human than Berlusconi.

Nonetheless, the value of the change should not be minimized. Berlusconi, in spite his clownish ways, was one of the most conspicuous leaders of the right in Europe. He stood out in his absolute support for the United States on Iraq and Israel. During one recent Israeli Independence Day, Berlusconi visited the Israeli embassy in Rome and declared: "We are all Israelis." Prodi is in no way anti-Israeli, but from now on, Italian policy is expected to reflect the overall European policy.

Berlusconi also stuck out for his attacks on the state institutions, including the judiciary. Most significantly, of all the European politicians, he was the most American in the importance he attributed to money. He viewed the fact that he was the wealthiest man in Italy as overwhelming proof of his superiority, of the similarities that he saw between himself, Napoleon and Jesus. The Italians rejected this approach, albeit by a small majority - but they still rejected it. The left won with the help of passion, not with an orderly plan. We must wait and see whether passion will be able to produce a plan for implementing policy.