The road to hell that goes through the center

Following another disastrous electoral result, the leader of the main Italian opposition party, known as the Democratic Party (what an original name, eh ? Wonder where they took inspiration from…), tendered his resignation. The future of the party is very much up in the air. A new secretary will take over, but it seems pretty clear that this relatively new political formation, in existence for barely 20 months, has largely failed in its stated purpose of becoming the hinge of a broad center-left coalition that could challenge what now appears the unassailable, virtually absolute power of … yeah, that guy — the “funny” one (TFO).

So, Italy, which only thirty years ago was the home of the strongest communist party in the western world, has now a vacuum at the left of its political center. It is a vacuum not only of ideas, but even of actual, credible parties. All one sees, is a myriad of minuscule factions (every day one of them splits into two), mostly fighting among each other over electoral “strategies” and “alliances”.
How did Italy get to this point ? Does TFO’s far-right coalition enjoy a large majority of the popular vote ? Not really — in fact, not even a majority. They are in power with less than 47% of the votes, which translates into a majority of seats due to the usual, undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral law (this particular one was introduced by a previous right-wing government, to the exclusive benefit of TFO himself [0]). That majority of a handful of seats means de facto absolute power for TFO, as dissent from within the far right coalition is not so much quelled, as it is non-existent. Representatives elected in the far right coalition act like pawns, obediently carrying out the orders received from above, voting every time as instructed and constantly singing the praises of their one-and-only leader. Indeed, were it not for some clownish aspects that are typical of the country’s political tradition, the expression “personality cult” may be quite appropriate.

None of this would conceivably be taking place, had the previous “center-left” (yeah, right…) government done what TFO did, and taken advantage of its temporary position of power to replace the existing electoral law with a democratic one, which would ensure an adequate representation for all political views enjoying some reasonable support across the country [1]. That did not happen, though, because the center-left government failed to come up with any proposal that the far right minority would approve. That’s right, when the far right is in power, it can govern for five years as a dictatorship, ignoring any kind of opposition, not only parliamentary but also that which expresses itself through other channels (trade unions, students, intellectuals). The opposition is branded as “radicals”, “terrorists”, “sore losers”, since it refuses to bow down to the Leader (in what would be called “bi-partisanship”) and deferentially step aside, while the government proceeds to the dismantling of every remnant of democracy and rule of law. Every vote is rigidly across party lines, parliamentary debate is reduced to a sham, and a mockery is made of the entire democratic process.

On the other hand, when the “center-left” is in power, they have the moral duty of reaching across the aisle, “exercise restraint”, be mindful of those who did not support them, or face prompt accusation of “despotism” on the part of the press (virtually all of which in the hands of the far right). Not surprisingly, an accord with the opposition is impossible, the government is paralyzed, and impatience grows among those who wish to see the majority do what it was placed in power for, namely govern.
And of course, unlike the case of the far right, internal opposition and debate are accepted, even welcome within a center-left coalition, as a physiological component of the normal political process. However, they become also a liability, in the delicate game of alliances and parliamentary votes. Meanwhile, elected members of the same coalition declare their intellectual “independence” (read: cross the aisle and openly side with the opposition), playing the role of “moles”, sabotaging any attempt at governing, and triggering the collapse of the government on the first opportunity, after a few months in power. A snap election is called, in which voters, mostly out of frustration, replace the center-left majority with another right-wing dictatorship, which in turn takes that as a mandate to move even further to the right. And, so on. And really, I cannot blame progressive voters for not voting, or for deserting their parties and leaders — what is the point of voting for a party that calls itself “progressive”, and then once in power moves to the center, i.e., fails to implement or even embrace a single progressive policy ? What is the point of supporting a “socialist” party whose main campaign theme sounds like “We are not really socialists, you know ? — we are just like the right, but so much cooler and better looking…”.

OK, now, in fairness, is the above scenario exclusive of Italy ? Or, is it reminiscent of a dynamics that we may have observed in the United States too, for example, with Bush first, and with Obama now ?
To me, the question is: how much longer will so-called “progressive” parties and leaders worldwide keep playing this suicidal game ? How long will electors on the left of the political spectrum have to wait, in order to elect representatives who will advocate and fight in the Parliament for the causes that are important to us ?
Are we not all tired of “coalitions” which do not coalesce, “center-left” governments whose policies are indistinguishable from those of the far right, progressive politicians who will do whatever not to sound too progressive ?
The funny thing is, this strategy does not even pay, in the end — the tone of the political discourse becomes ever more bitterly partisan amidst all attempts at “finding a common ground”, dialogue is replaced by a constant shouting match, important pieces of legislations remain stalled, elections continue to be lost more often than they are won, and disenfranchisement among voters grows.
At this point, really, if the far right has to be in power, well so be it, and let it be the “official” right, not some so-called left which then turns into the right — give us progressives our opposition parties back.

Why not take a lesson from history. The Italian Communist Party (PCI) reached, at the top of its parabola, about 34% of the popular vote. It was never in power; yet, as the main opposition party, it managed to exert a strong, in many respects crucial influence over the politics and the profound social transformation that the country underwent during the 60s and 70s. Its imprint can be found on the many of the most important legislative initiatives of the time. Being perceived as the party of change, renewal, alternative, it expanded greatly its base of support, going well beyond its natural constituency (blue collar workers), capturing the imagination of many, most young voters and receiving the support of intellectuals, artists, women, and even many business owners. As a result, it was also the party capable of elaborating the most forward looking and innovative policies, most of which were simply co-opted by the ruling Christian Democrats. I think it is fair to say that, around 1975, while the PCI was not formally in power, it might as well have been [2]. Any historian wanting to write the history of the country in the years that go from 1945 until 1989, simply could not omit to mention the PCI.
And then, things started going downhill. Granted, the collapse of the Soviet Union played an important role, but the PCI had always distanced itself from its ideological motherland, so to speak. No, I think it is mostly the fact that its leaders became obsessed with replacing the Christian Democrats at the helm, that caused its demise. It slowly started moving toward the center, losing the support of its core leftist voters, while trying to attract that of those who would never give it a chance, under any circumstances. In an attempt to remain afloat, during the political turmoil of the 90s, it changed its name several times, never finding a convincing way of redefining itself, lost focus, watered down its plank, grew old and tired, lost touch with young voters, to the point of becoming the useless, meaningless placeholder that it is today.

My impression is that the left may be condemned to make forever, almost physiologically, a better opposition than a government. Personally, I have no problem with that. It is possible to govern from the opposition as well, and it is what is eventually accomplished that matters, not whether the Prime Minister is “one of our guys”. Be that as it may, I would welcome going back to a situation in which party names mean something, a party is identified by its ideology rather than by its leaders (and their spouses) and/or the coalitions to which it would participate, and parliamentary debate goes back to being about ideas, not exchange of political favors.

[0] Just like every single law passed by any of his governments over the past fourteen years during which he has been in power. Credit should be given to him, though, for making absolutely no bones about that.

[1] Left-wing parties, which constitute over 10% of the popular vote, have been shut out of parliament altogether in the last election (Spring 2008).

[2] Incidentally, the years from the mid 60s to the late 70s are also arguably those of greatest intellectual fervor that the country has enjoyed, during its history as a republic.

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2 Responses to “The road to hell that goes through the center”

  1. Ian Says:

    I would say this entire article reads far too similar to Canadian politics. Except here we don’t have coalitions, just idle threats of coalitions that are temporarily useful for one party, and not used for the good of the country.

    Also, Ignatieff and the Liberals seem content to not “govern from opposition” with their passing the budget while declaring it just plain awful. Of course that does play well into the unspoken Liberal Party mantra of “run on the left, rule on the right.”

    Finally, even in the NDP we see them shift bit by bit toward the centre. Now they’re around 20% of the vote, and I think their goal is official opposition one day, but how far right would that have to take them (and similar to Italy, who will vote for them then?).

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    What Ian said… the parallels are scary.

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