Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Roman recant

Three years on, Daniela Pioppi writes about the reasons behind the decline of the once active anti-war movement in Italy

On 15 February 2003, just before the beginning of the war in Iraq, Italy witnessed the biggest anti-war demonstration in its history. Three million people gathered in Rome under the banner of "Against the war -- no 'ifs' nor 'buts'".

Organised by more than 400 political groups and associations, 350 local administrations and 136 members of parliament, the demonstration assembled leftist and Catholic associations, the new global movement and the main trade unions in the country, together with hundreds of thousands of politically non-affiliated citizens. In the preceding and following months, more than five million peace flags were sold and hung from windows and balconies transforming the Italian urban landscape to an extent that even surprised the organisers.

Italy has a long history of peace mobilisation, since it traditionally has two opposite, although not antagonistic, souls: the Catholic independent movements and associations, and the left which links pacifism to the anti-imperialist tradition. This time, however, the Roman demonstration was part of a 'global initiative'. Proposed by the European social forum in November 2002 and then taken up by the global social forum in Porto Alegre (Brazil), on the same day, a total of 110 million people demonstrated against the war in 54 different countries scattered in five continents. In the optimistic eyes of Italian peace activists, the event was the beginning of an unprecedented and effective pacifist movement in Italy and the world.

After February 2003, many other demonstrations and initiatives were organised. Besides demonstrations (the biggest marking the anniversaries of the beginning of the war in March 2003, 2004, 2005) and the large participation in the traditional Perugia-Assisi peace march (an annual Catholic venue), other initiatives continued to punctuate Italian politics, indicating the continuity of popular opposition to the war.

Contrary to optimistic expectations, however, the 2003 peak was never again matched. In 2004 and 2005 there was a slow decline in visible protest activities, until the last demonstration -- held only a few days ago -- saw the participation of less than 50,000 people and no support from the main trade unions.

How should this decline in visible protest be interpreted? Has the pacifist movement been defeated? Has public opinion changed? Why has the pacifist movement been unable to influence Italian politics and achieve the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq? It can be safely argued, and recent opinion polls confirm, that the large majority of the Italian population is still against the war. The answer, thus, is not in a change of opinion, but in the lack of full support for the anti-war movement by the 'institutional' left. The anti-war mobilisation in Italy, as elsewhere, was largely a spontaneous initiative from below. However, in order to be effective and continuous it had to be embraced and supported by more established political organisations capable of structuring and channeling popular protest.

The 'institutional left' (mainly the Party of the Democrats of the left, the former Communist Party) participated in the mobilisation in 2003, but later tried to play down the movement, for fear of having to take clearer and more radical positions in international politics. Preoccupied with preparing itself to govern the country again after the 2006 elections, the 'institutional' left -- or centre-left to be more precise -- is keeping a distance from what it perceives as the 'radical' tradition of the non-governmental left. At the same time, the centre-right government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has started to take more nuanced positions in public, to the point of hanging peace flags from its party headquarters (in the end, Bush is also acting to achieve 'peace') and announcing in March 2005 a future gradual withdrawal of Italian troops.

The difference between the right and the left -- at least their large centrist components -- are blurring, permitting both political poles to maintain similar and vague positions.

The widening gap between the citizens and the citizens' movements on the one hand and 'institutional' politics on the other -- which is felt on a number of issues and not only with respect to the anti-war campaign -- has had a number of effects both on the Italian political fabric and on the effectiveness of the pacifist movement in general.

The first of these effects is that parliamentary forces no longer have really alternative political programmes. The Cold War divide between the left and the centre-right is disappearing. Increasingly, the two political poles have similar positions on many controversial issues ranging from economic reform to foreign policy, similarly to what is happening in other bi-polar democratic systems (the United States and Britain). The consequence is a more conservative political debate and a decline in citizens' confidence in politicians and political institutions.

The second effect of the 'widening gap' is on the anti-war movement itself, which has lost the traditional ideological and organisational support of left parties and the chance to have a direct impact on the parliamentary debate. In the absence of more structured political support, the anti-war movement tends to be divided into its many components and hence to be politically more vulnerable.

An example of the anti-war movement's vulnerability is the negative effect that international discourse on terrorism and on the alleged 'clash of civilisations' is having on the mobilisation. With a kind of war rhetoric, people are increasingly being asked to choose sides and if they come out against the war, they are criminalised and accused of supporting terrorism, as happened with that part of the anti-war movement that declared solidarity in principle with the Iraqi's right to resist an illegitimate foreign occupation.

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