Berlusconi has a love-hate relationship with the piazzas – or squares – of Italy. He hates them when they are full of his opponents, as happened in 2001 during the anti-G8 protests in Genoa, less than two months after the second Berlusconi cabinet had been sworn in on June 11 – and he calls for or implements repressive measures. But he sees their publicity value and, from time to time, calls for rallies in his support, as he did on Saturday May 11 2013.
“Filling the squares” with supporters and protesters has traditionally been linked to the Italian Left, although things are changing. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Northern League successfully mimicked some of the most successful PCI (former Communist Party) tactics of bringing people together, such as the grassroots development of local festivals. More recently, the M5S has begun to fill the squares with its supporters, including Rome’s iconic Piazza San Giovanni, traditionally chosen by the unions for their annual May Day celebration.
The PDL, too, has sometimes tried to imitate the Left’s traditional forms of protest, by calling for rallies and demonstrations – not exactly Berlusconi’s forte. On such occasions, reporters often expose how popular tricks are played to increase numbers, including paying professional extras (as little as €10 per day), offering free transit, and luring people to the square with the promise of a meal voucher, extremely appealing in times of economic hardship.
The demonstration held on Saturday was one of those occasions. Berlusconi called for a rally in Brescia in order to protest against his conviction for tax fraud and the sentence of one year in prison and a five-year ban from public office. The trial began originally seven years ago and the final verdict could take several more years, as Berlusconi will appeal to Italy’s Supreme Court.
The point of the demonstration was more to get media attention than to demonstrate the PDL’s strength in a muscular show of force. However, thousands of supporters did take part in the rally – and it also attracted thousands of Berlusconi’s detractors, mostly left-wing activists, ordinary citizens, and supporters of the M5S. Berlusconi and other high-ranking members of the party were welcomed with chants of Shame!, spitting and even some throwing of coins. As tension mounted between the two groups, anti-riot police intervened to protect Berlusconi’s supporters.
The presence of Angelino Alfano, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, at a rally against the judiciary system has attracted heavy criticism. This would be simply unthinkable in any other country. Prominent members of the PDL tried to defend the party’s choice (Alfano is also the PDL’s Secretary), claiming that Alfano was in Brescia simply as a speaker in the electoral campaign for the municipal elections, to be held on May 26 and 27.
Meanwhile, the PDL’s attempts at criminalizing dissenting protesters continue undeterred. Since a group of Berlusconi’s supporters claimed to be victims of physical violence, the PDL demanded an immediate apology from the leadership of the SEL party, whose members were among the thousands of citizens rallying against the former Prime Minister in Brescia.
This kind of demand is part of a wider, dangerous and oblique strategy: attempting to criminalize all dissent in order to justify all repression. Other examples are the hint given by the Mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, that the political opposition is morally responsible for the shootings in Rome, and the violent repression of students’ protest in Milan and Naples. Taken together, these are not promising signs from the newly inaugurated cabinet.
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