Monday, February 16, 2004

“United we stand…” at least for the moment

The Roman poet Trilussa did not have many illusions about politics; a latterday Aesop, his animals illustrated very human foibles. In that fateful year of 1922, he described a feline get-together. It was the Socialist Congress of Intransigent Cats where one delegate exhorted his fellow moggies thus:

No, compagni! E’ necessario/ch’ogni membro der partito, favorevole o contrario,/ nun se squaji e resti unito./ P’evità l’inconveniente/c’è un rimedio solamente:/ se legamo tutti assieme/pe’ la coda, e famo in modo/che se un gatto vô annà avanti/è obbrigato de sta’ ar chiodo, ’ché, se tira, strigne er nodo/e stracina tutti quanti. [No, comrades! It is necessary/ that every party member whether he’s for or against/ doesn’t split and stays united/ To get over this/ there is only one answer:/ we must tie ourselves together/ by the tail and we’ll do it in such a way/ that if one cat wants to go forward/ he’s obliged to stand still because if he pulls, he tightens the knot/ and pulls everyone after him.]

Instead of tying tails together so that all will move united, a triumphal “convention” in Rome this weekend decided that the two big parties of the centre-left and two of the smaller ones would fight June’s European Parliament elections from a single list of candidates.

The high point was when Romano Prodi, a non-candidate, gave a rousing speech against an unnamed opponent; he is going to stay as President of the European Commission until the end of October and he was not going to even mention Berlusconi. The other leaders all reiterated their commitment to work together towards the immediate goal of winning the EP and Italian regional elections in four months time and the long-term goal of winning the Italian elections probably in 2006.

In practical terms this means that the Democratici di Sinistra, the Margherita, the Social Democrats (SDI) and the European Republicans will present a single list of candidates under the symbol “United for the Olive Tree”. The first two make up just over 30% of the Italian Parliament and are the backbone of the opposition led by Piero Fassino and Francesco Rutelli. The other two are the rumps of two parties from the “first republic”; the SDI is led by Enrico Boselli and went left (Craxi’s supporters went rightwards either to tiny parties or into Forza Italia) while the already minute Republican Party also split with Giorgio La Malfa going right and Luciana Sbarbarti going to the Olive. The “convention” was also a way of bringing in the grass roots and fringe groups, the so-called girotondi and movimenti. They have grown up spontaneously over the last couple of years, a sign of the frustration felt by centre-left sympathisers towards the official parties. To really bring them on board would be a huge fillip for the centre-left.

The elections are still fought with preference votes which means that voters will be able to choose which candidates they prefer and there will no doubt be big fights within the list over personalities as well as policies but it is a first step towards a united front in 2006 where most seats are won on a first past the post system.

Left out of the arrangements on the right is Clemente Mastella’s UDEUR and on the left, the Greens and Communists and not surprisingly, Bertinotti’s “neo-coms” of Rifondazione, on the other side is Di Pietro and a small breakaway group from the DS.

The declaration of intent (l'Unità online-La dichiarazione di intenti...) is just that, a vague and hopeful document but very much a small beginning. It is based on Romano Prodi’s January statement and promises a detailed manifesto for the election to be drawn up by former prime minister, Giuliano Amato.

But to win elections, you need a leader, a programme and organisation.

The leader is there, albeit waiting in the wings. Prodi was stabbed in the back last time in 1998 and he is a more cautious man today but in his apparently bumbling way, he has already shown that he can beat Berlusconi and could certainly do so again. In 1996 he also showed that he could draw up a manifesto; he won with it as did Berlusconi with his “Contract with the Italians” in 2001. The organisation is the difficult part. It is not only Trilussa’s cats who are intransigent; the bane of Italian politics has always been glorification of division: “better to stick to my principles (and tho’ I do not admit it, my position) than compromise”. The ultimate success of the weekend’s meeting can only be judged by the number who do accept compromise.

All in all, “United for the Olive Tree” is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a centre-left victory and there will have to be a lot more work if they are not to end up like the Intransigent Socialist Cats, scattered by a large and fierce black (shirted) dog.

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