Will the ILVA steelworks issue play a key role in the battle for the leadership of Italy's centre left?
Last Wednesday’s television confrontation between the head of the Centre-left Democratic Party (Pd) Pier Luigi Bersani and his opponent for the party leadership Matteo Renzi has brought to light important differences between the two candidates and created the impression that the final result of the next Sunday’s runoff is far from a foregone conclusion. Furthermore, new details in the investigations regarding the Ilva steel plant in Taranto might tip the balance in favour of Renzi.
In last Sunday’s first round of primaries, Bersani led the polls with 44.9 percent of the votes, ahead of Renzi who earned 35.5% and also in front of the other favourite, Nichi Vendola who heads the left leaning Ecology and Freedom Party (Sel), with 15.6%.
Many believe that Bersani’s lead will increase even further after Nichi Vendola publicly told his electorate to endorse the head of the Pd over Renzi in the runoff ballot.
Despite his credibility and his long political experience, Bersani is seen by Renzi as a representative of Italy’s old political “caste” that has led Italy towards the brink of bankruptcy. For the last 20 years Italy’s centre-left has preferred playing opaque power games to running the nation.
During the recent public confrontation between Bersani and Renzi, the former appeared to be on the defensive and seemed to be feeling the pressure exerted by energetic young mayor of Florence Renzi, whose extraordinary communication skills have at times eclipsed the calm and calculated tones of the current party leader.
Despite Renzi’s communicative prowess, Bersani’s proposals were more down to earth and he avoided making impossible promises, proposing instead the halving of public financing to political parties. Bersani did not rule out the possibility of forming a coalition with the Union of the Centre (Udc), a Christian Democratic Party led by former Berlusconi ally Pier Ferdinando Casini. The Pd chief justified the overture to Casini’s Udc using the argument that the Pd’s decision to run alone during the 2008 election led to Berlusconi’s victory.
Renzi, on the other hand, was more prone to pompous promises (Shades of Berlusconi?) such as that of spending 20 billion Euros to redistribute 100 Euros a month to those earning less than €2000. He also denied the possibility of an alliance with Udc and advocated the complete abolition of public funding for political parties. Renzi expressed his intention to form a government with only ten ministers, as well as halving the number of MPs.
Renzi’s proposals appear utterly unrealistic in a cash-strapped country like Italy, where politicians collaborate to defend their extensive privileges and generous salaries. As improbable as they might sound, Renzi’s promises might appeal to voters frustrated with the lack of positive planning for Italy’s future and anyone who wants Italy to become a better nation.
Others may choose Renzi over Bersani because Florence’s mayor has not yet been exposed to the discredited arena of party politics meaning he can assume, therefore, an air of spotless innocence.
Ilva Financing of 2006 Electoral Campaign
On Thursday 29 November the political television program Servizio Pubblico discussed the situation of the troubled Ilva steel plant in Taranto which might soon have to close down. Magistrates found direct links between thousands of deaths among the local population and the heavy environmental pollution caused, over the years, by the factory’s outdated production methods and lack of regard for safety standards.
During the program, investigative journalist Marco Travaglio revealed that prior to the 2006 electoral campaign Ilva-owner Emilio Riva provided Berlusconi’s Pdl party with with €345,000 in funding, and also paid €98,000 euro to Bersani, who was expected to become the Minister for Economic Development in the new government. The money is believed to have been paid in order to buy the silence of the politicians so they would turn a blind eye to the unsafe condition of the plant. Although ILVA’s owners have earned some €3.5 billion in revenue over the last decade from the steelworks, they have not spent a cent on making the plant more environmentally friendly.
While the donation did not represent a breach of Italy’s laws per se, Travaglio criticised Bersani’s unethical behaviour for having accepted the money, despite numerous allegations that the Riva family operation was dangerous. Furthermore, insists Travaglio, Bersani did not ask himself what the company expected from him in return for the payment.
The funding story was told in the presence of Renzi and other well known personalities from Italian politics. While the young mayor of Florence claimed he is certain about his opponent’s honesty, the ILVA news may well deal a severe blow to Bersani’s credibility at a moment when Italian voters are deeply disaffected with politics and are loath to further tolerate their politicians’ constantly murky behavior.
It is possible the ILVA issue may swing the balance of the runoff ballot in the favour of Renzi. We shall see.
By Stefano Salustri
Stefano is from L’Aquila, Italy but has worked and studied for years in different European countries before temporarily returning to his hometown.
After earning an M.A. from the University of Bath in 2011, he currently collaborates with various magazines and writes on international politics and energy issues.
He joined Italy Chronicles in December 2012 and contributes pieces on Italian news, politics and food.