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From the June 2003 issue of World Press Review
In Medias Res
By Tekla Szymanski
Chaos in Parliament, declared Corriere Della Sera (April 2), and La Stampa (April 4) called it a flunk. The papers referred to the unexpected defeat of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconis center-right government on April 1 in the lower house of Parliament over the Gasparri bill, the flagship of Berlusconis legislative program. The bill was intended to transform Italys media sector by abolishing restrictions on cross-ownership of national TV channels and newspapers.
The center-left opposition had proposed an amendment to the Gasparri bill to topple Berlusconis media empire by blocking ownership of more than two TV channels and limiting cross-ownership of TV networks, radio stations, and newspapers, thus forcing Berlusconi to give up one of his three networks. The amendment, dryly commented Il Manifestos Bruno Perini (April 3), was zapping the dream of the Berlusconi group of owning all the broadcasting outlets and of getting its hands on other newspapers.
On April 1, the amendment passed by 230-222 in a vote that, according to La Repubblica (April 3), resembled a blitzkrieg. La Mattina Amedeo of La Stampa labeled the vote the oppositions blitz, and the paper (April 4) designated the day of the vote the day of tense nerves. Either way, without the votes of 17 members of the coalition who broke party ranks, the amendment would not have passed. Berlusconi was left deeply embarrassed.
The left-leaning and centrist media covered the event widely. Galluzzo Marco, writing for Corriere della Sera (April 3) applauded the outcome of the vote. For the opposition, this is a victory for Parliament, for freedom of conscience, against a law that would have reinforced Berlusconis conflict-of-interest. La Repubblica (April 3) gave an analysis written by Curzio Maltese the headline The Bipartisan Rebellion. Maltese claimed that what is happening in Italy is a war that engages the government more than the war with Iraq. Maltese talked of a furious battle in Parliament, of a historical ballot, and of the glamorous rebellion in the house. And he concluded that He who meddles with TV loses.... That it was at all possible while the master of Mediaset [Italys private, commercial TV broadcaster, owned by Berlusconi] is in power, is a sublime paradox of democracy. And he predicted: The media war will go on until the final crisis is reached. Conservative newspapers, like Il Foglio, on the other hand, covered the vote as a news item only and did not further comment on it.
On April 3, the revised version of the Gasparri bill, including the amendment, passed the house by a vote of 284-232. But the amendment is symbolic at best, because in May, the bill will go before Parliaments upper house, the Senate, where Berlusconi holds a solid majority. By then, the prime minister will likely redraft it altogether to fit his needs.
The Gasparri bill is close to the heart of the flamboyant media mogul who owns Italys three biggest commercial TV channels and has influence over RAI, the Italian public broadcaster that owns Italys three main national channels. In his capacity as prime minister, Berlusconi can appoint RAIs chairman, and the prime minister is the owner of RAIs main competitor, Mediaset. RAI has always been highly politicized, and top jobs are traditionally awarded to supporters of those who happen to be in government.
The Gasparri law would give Berlusconi a solid legal basis to expand his media holdings further and push for the privatization of RAI. It is not certain, however, if Berlusconi can count on the loyalty of enough legislators from his coalition. The 17 legislators who voted with the opposition on the amendment, violated, according to La Stampa, a taboo. La Repubblica (April 3) went so far as to predict that the decision by the 17 renegades will have severe, political implications for the governing coalition. Italian newspapers referred to the 17 as franchi tiratori, literally irregulars or guerillas. Il Manifesto elaborated on that description: The group that shot the Berluscones in the back. And Corriere della Sera quoted Paolo Romani, the communications spokesman for Berlusconis Forza Italia Party, who warned that revenge is a dish best served cold; everybody in the center-right will pay for the  renegades. Berlusconis anger made headlines: La Repubblica (April 4) quoted the prime minister snapping at party leaders of his coalition partners who are not able to control their deputies.
Since taking office two years ago, Berlusconi has been accused time and again of conflict of interest in his dual role as head of the government and media tycoon. Corruption charges have also constantly surfaced. The dispute over the Gasparri bill proves that ownership of media is still hotly contested and of political significance in Italy. La Mattina Amedeo concluded in La Stampa (April 3), I think that awareness is spreading that Berlusconis absolute dominance over the broadcast system is not something that even [his coalition partners] want.
Berlusconi is entering a period that will determine his political future and legacy, and Italians will continue to witness an ever-determined politician stubbornly pushing through his agenda by passing laws that are tailor-made for him. In addition to the scuffle over the Gasparri law, the prime minister faces charges of bribing judges to influence the outcome of a corporate takeover battle in the 1980s. And he is trying to pass a bill that would restore the political immunity of members of Parliamentwhich was severely curtailed in 1993 by Berlusconis predecessor, Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampiand freeze trials in progress.
Meanwhile, Berlusconi keeps smiling and declares: I have the patience of Job.
From the March 2002 issue of World Press Review
Given the Boot
By Tekla Szymanski
Italys Premier Silvio Berlusconi spoiled the fun: While Europe enthusiastically celebrated the euro, the flamboyant media tycoon triggered the most severe crisis Italy has ever had in its relations with the European Union (EU). Berlusconi accepted the resignation of one of the strongest and most experienced pro-European voices in Italy, Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero, leaving an empty political hole(Il Sole/24 Ore, Jan. 7).
Ruggiero was ousted on Jan. 5, after having repeatedly criticized the cabinet for its alleged negative attitudes toward the EU. Left-leaning papers feared that the resignation would damage Italys reputation, while the conservative media welcomed the sacking. The European press was left puzzled. Italy, snapped Dagens Nyheter (Jan. 7), [takes] on the role of the wicked witch....Berlusconis government is worryingly unpredictable.
Berlusconi, as interim foreign minister, plans to overhaul the post and pledged to defend Italys national interests, sounding more hostile to the European idea than any Italian politician before. Gianfranco Fini of the post-Fascist Alleanza Nazionale turned overnight into the contender for the vacated posta frightful prospect for Europes mostly center-left-oriented leaders. Berlusconi, wrote Corriere della Sera (Jan. 6), as self-appointed guarantor of foreign policy, must now explain what policy he intends to guarantee.
But not all the media were skeptical. Il Giornale (owned by Berlusconi) opined (Jan. 6), It is a good thing that this soap opera has ended....Ruggiero had become the pet of the center-left. LUnità, however, proclaimed that day that the only one capable of maintaining Italys credibility and reputation is leaving the scene.
This is indeed a serious loss, EU Competition Commissioner Mario Monti was quoted in The Guardian (Jan. 9), for a country not overly well endowed with credible big hitters on the international stage.
Italy Strikes Again
By Tekla Szymanski
April 2002: The spectacle of Romes Piazza del Popolo, or Peoples Square, as a sea of banners and red flags on April 16 has led many European commentators to speculate about the resurgence of Italys political opposition. Berlusconi + Fini = Mussolini, read one poster wrapped over a cardboard coffin at the most recent demonstrations. Two massive paper-maché puppets depicted Berlusconi as Napoleon and the Pope. Other protesters shouted slogans lambasting Berlusconi for killing democracy.
This was Italys first general strike in 20 years, and as such it was a very political strike, according to Giacomo Folli of Milans centrist Corriere della Sera (April 17). It was organized by Italys three major trade unions to protest the governments plan to overhaul and weaken Article 18 of Italys rigid labor law so that employers would have greater freedom to hire and fire. Article 18, which was passed in 1970, states that a company with more than 15 employees must reinstate a worker if a court finds that he or she was fired without just cause. The unionists charge that any change to this established labor lawone of Europes most protectivewould give the government a green light to further erode workers rights and job securities.
Thirteen million Italian workers walked off their jobs, and 2 million took to the streets for a day, bringing the country to a standstill. Participants included, among others, transport, media, and health-care workers. The action was more than an expression of anger: It was the beginning of an organized opposition against Berlusconi. The left, at first paralyzed after the media tycoons stunning victory last June and formation of a rightist government, seems to have reclaimed its confidence to challenge the prime minister openly. Surely the strike also brought back painful memories for Berlusconi himself: Mass demonstrations helped bring down his first, shorter-lived government in 1994.
The participation in the strike confirmed what many Italian commentators have long argued: That Sergio Cofferati, the leader of Italys largest trade union, the Confederatione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL), has the requisite support to run for office against Berlusconi. He has become the center of Italys labor movement, coordinating activities with Italys two othermore moderatemajor trade unions, the Catholic Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori (CISL), and the centrist Unione Italiana del Lavoro (UIL).
Cofferati is a quiet man; Berlusconi refers to him dismissively as Signor No. But Berlusconis opponents welcomed Cofferatis call for the unions to unite against Berlusconis government as the oppositions first significant act of defiance since Berlusconi took office. Corriere della Sera, for example, in an April 15 front-page article, saw the general strike as an instrument of political struggle, which had nothing to do with the normal business of trade unions.
Likewise, Milans conservative Il Giornale, which is owned by Berlusconi, was quick to declare, in its April 15 edition, that the strike was aimed at bringing down the government. The next day Il Giornales top headline gloated: The Strike Was Not General: Participation in Marches Less than Expected.
Be that as it may, the editors of Munichs conservative Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote on March 25, many left-leaning Italians have begun to realize that their lackluster and fragmented opposition must awake from its deep sleep, which allows the government to do what it pleases. Coincidentally, the last general labor strike 20 years ago was against former Premier Bettino Craxi, after he eliminated the scala mobile, which legislated automatic salary raises to account for inflation. Ironically, the Socialist Craxi played no small role in making Berlusconi Italys biggest media baron: Craxi was a close friend of Berlusconi, and when, in 1984, a judge ruled that Berlusconis three national television networks were broadcasting illegally, Craxi rushed through a governmental decree to get them back on the air. Regardless, as the editors of Genevas independent Le Temps wrote on March 25, 2-3 million [striking] Italians is a lot [but] even if they were to vote today, they would re-elect Berlusconi.
they would. But opposition to Berlusconi has been rapidly gaining steam in recent
months. Smaller strikes have been an almost daily occurrence, but until recently
did not have much impact. And even now, the political opposition is too divided
Perhaps it was to keep terrorists from hijacking their agenda. On March 19, Marco Biagi, a consultant to the government on labor law who had worked to change Article 18, was gunned down as he bicycled home from work. An offshoot of the Red Brigade, a far-left terrorist group active in the 1970s and 1980s, claimed responsibility, but Berlusconis coalition partners blamed the murder on the intransigence of the labor unions. On March 27, after Cofferatiwhom Italian newspapers call the anti-premier or the anti-Berlusconiorganized a rally in Rome that drew 2 million people, expressing disgust at the murder but protesting proposed changes to Italys labor law. The turnout at this first rally may well have inspired Cofferati to build on his success.
The turmoil seemed to take the rest of Europes press by surprise as they struggled to make sense of Italys tumultuous internal politics. Italy Sees Red, was the headline of Dorothee Sippells special report in the March 25 edition of Viennas weekly newsmagazine Profil. Sippell depicted a country burdened by an influx of immigrants and a sky-high crime rate: Has this country gone mad? Sippell asked. How will the opposition distance itself from extreme-left terrorism?
Barbara Spinelli, a columnist for Turins centrist La Stampa attempted to answer this question in an angry guest-column for the March 27 edition of Hamburgs liberal weekly Die Zeit, in which she concluded that the whole country was rotten to the core. Philip Willian, writing for the April 17 edition of Londons liberal Guardian likewise saw systemic problems behind the recent protests. The massive response to the strike call, Willian wrote, Underlined just how polarized Italy has become.
Süddeutsche Zeitung took a more penetrating look. The opposition is fighting the wrong issues, an unsigned March 25 editorial argued. When Berlusconi took over the country, when his deputies subserviently passed his laws, and his ministers slammed the judiciary, protest was lukewarm. Now, when the government is finally beginning to do its job and is starting to tackle overdue reforms, the clamor begins. In an opinion piece from the same edition, Stefan Ulrich added: The new opposition is a street festival at best. It can cause Berlusconi to fall but it lacks enough substance to take his place. The leaders of the leftist parties go with the flowbut they dont lead. They offer no attractive alternative to Berlusconis political bloc.
La Stampas editors seemed to agree in their March 25 editorial. The protests, they argued, are holding up other initiatives that are necessary to modernize the economy and create jobs and prospects for development.
Italy must move ahead, Giacomo Folli agreed in an April 17 column for Corriere della Sera. We must remember that in a democracy, the majority wins. And the government must remember that the labor world deserves respect. The workers are not an enemy to fight.
Unions and the government are now set for long and painful negotiations in search of a compromise. Even a complete remake of the political arena is now possible, but the unions will have to take riskscautiously. Cofferati is aware of the fact that a general strike can be employed only once, Gianfranco Fini, Italys Vice Premier and leader of the far-right National Alliance Party said, as quoted in Berlins left-wing taz (April 18). He knows that he cant threaten to strike again in another month. Nevertheless, the opposition is slowly attempting to unify Italys three major trade unions into one potent political front that will vote together.
Left-wing Italian journalists have responded with optimism. April 16 is not a repeat of the old general strike, wrote Valentino Parlato in Il Manifesto (April 14). It is not a matter of resistance but an opening to something new, absolutely modern . This strike is a great challenge that will not end at 5 p.m. on April 16. It is a challenge to all of us . The medium-term aim is to remove the current group from powerand then to take a new course.