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A rough guide to the Italian election

Right-winger Silvio Berlusconi's election victory on April 13-14, the disastrous results for the Rainbow Left (Sinistra Arcobaleno) -- `` new party born old’’ -- and the increased number of no-voters in this election present new yet anticipated challenges for the radical left in Italy. Below, Paolo Gerbaudo discusses the election result and the challenge for the Italian left. Red Pepper’s Hilary Wainwright talks to Italian left activists about what lessons they draw from the experience of the left's participation in the Romano Prodi government, about the weakness of the movements after the inspiring highs of Genoa and the Florence European Social Forum and, above all, about new strategies necessary to reach out to the mass of democratically minded but disillusioned Italians -- strategies now more relevant than ever. The complete roundtable of interviews and articles is available at the Transnational Institute's website (



A defeated left tries to recompose

April 23, 2008 -- In Italy, the whole left spectrum from communists to greens has lost political representation in the space of one election. What are the lessons that can be learnt from this defeat and how can the left rise again, asks Paolo Gerbaudo.

No communists, no socialists, no pacifists, no greens, no 'no global' activists. An entire array of old and new political identities, which marked different stages in the development of the Italian left, have lost political representation, in the space of one election. The last time something comparable happened was at the beginning of fascism, in 1924, when socialist and communist MPs withdrew in protests against elections marked by vote-rigging and violence.
Today, there is little doubt about the validity of the elections. Berlusconi is back thanks to a land-slide victory which stretches from the Mafia-stricken regions of the South to the hyper-industrialised North. The gap between his coalition and Veltroni’s Democratic Party is 9 per cent It is one of the clearest popular majorities
Italy has ever witnessed during its republican history. This means Berlusconi will enjoy a greater legitimacy than he had on previous occasions. Thus he will have few obstacles in adopting a strategy of rupture with that shrinking half of the Italian public which continues to resist his seduction.

The only opposition parliamentary spokespersons to Berlusconi will be from Veltroni’s Democratic Party, an unsavoury alliance of post-communists and social Catholics, whose political blueprint is based on the centrism of New Labour. Sinistra – L’arcobaleno, the coalition comprising the Partito della Rifondazione Communista (PRC), the Italian Communists and the Greens, has not convinced the electorate. Set up in a hurry, a few months before the elections, it has been seen as a ``new party born old’’, as asserted by Ginsborg in an interview recently with Red Pepper. The 3 per cent it obtained in the polls is less than a third of the votes gained by all the parties in this coalition in previous elections.

Berlusconi´s reactionary political menu

On the menu that awaits the Italian people, with the return of Mr. Silvio, are a revival of the illegal actions which marked his previous mandate, an assortment of attacks on the autonomy of the judicial branch, new laws to defend the interests of his enterprises and acolytes, and an easy going attitude with tax evaders and illegal construction. These policies will be accompanied by an even stronger attack on trade unions and the cooperative sector, which in Italy are still strong.

Next in line will be the repression of various territorial struggles which have emerged in recent years against engineering projects: from the No-Tav protesting against an high-speed train line in Piedmont, to the Vicenza’s no-base protests against the construction of a US military airport, and the Sicilian and Calabrese activists’ blocking of the construction of the Messina bridge, which Berlusconi hopes to erect as a perennial monument to his era.

Divided left

One could easily predict that strong social conflict will ensue. However , the risk this time is that Berlusconi’s attack on constitution, social rights and the environment will only be opposed by a confused and fragmented opposition. Yes, leftist politicians having been kicked out of parliament will have no way to go but the streets. But this time they won’t find the immediate welcome of social movements.

The state of the Italian left in the aftermath of the election is best described as a landscape marked by ruptures and distrust. Something which was hard to predict only a few years ago when a sense of common purpose united a broad and diverse coalition of forces. The series of struggles on global issues did indeed prove fertile terrain for the construction of networks and for the development of a strong dialogue between movements, civil society organisations and parties. This was clearly seen in the case of Rifondazione Comunista, which played a key role in translating struggles into a political strategy, heralding itself as the “party of movements”.

What remains of that period is perfectly exemplified by one moment in the electoral campaign: when an ice-cream was thrown at Caruso -- a former member of the anti-globalisers Disobbedienti – while he was campaigning for Sinistra Arcobaleno in Venice, by activists associated with Luca Casarini, the leader of North-Eastern Social Centres.

In 2001, on the streets of Genoa, the two charismatic leaders had been together in the padded-block of Disobbedienti, born out of an alliance between the Tute Bianche (White Overalls ``Direct Action’’ group) and the Giovani Comunisti (youth section of Rifondazione). The split happened in 2006, when Caruso decided to run for elections with Rifondazione. His decision was met by waves of criticism among anti-globalisation activists, accusing him of abandoning the terrain of conflict to head for a comfortable seat in the lower chamber.

Fraught relationship between parties and movements

The fraught relation between institutional politics and movements, and the often predatory attitude of the former towards the latter underlies the division. From 2001 until 2005, the social centres in the North-East worked closely with allies in the institutions, with social centre activists taking over sections of the Green Party in the Triveneto region. Elsewhere local alliances of social centres linked up with Rifondazione, for example in Rome’s Action–diritti network led by Nunzio D’Erme.

It was thanks to these movement-party alliances that local elections in 2005 delivered a major victory to the centre-left coalition and in particular to the radical left. In this context, Nichi Vendola, gay, catholic and communist and deeply involved in social struggles became elected against all odds in Apulia, traditionally a conservative region. This marked the peak of support for the institutional left amongst grassroots activists.

Critiques of Prodi´s government

The wind changed with the narrow victory of the Prodi-led centre-left coalition L’Unione in the national elections in April 2006. The most left-leaning government Italy ever had -- in terms of numbers of ministers from parties of the radical left -- was seen as far too moderate, and soon became the target of deep criticisms from social movements.

These condemnations first focused on the government’s foreign policy, where the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq was not accompanied by an abandonment of the “war on terror” or a withdrawal of Italian soldiers from Afghanistan. The government almost fell on this issue in a parliamentary vote, after a huge demonstration against the base in Vicenza. Radical MPs were forced to appeal to the fear of letting Berlusconi get back in. Nevertheless, as a result, they got ostracised from demonstrations.
Secondly, there has been widespread indignation for the lack of action on civil rights. The government has been reluctant in shielding off the attacks of the Church on abortion and has failed to approve a law for a ``a solidarity civil pact’’ for unmarried couples.

Thirdly, there has been grave disappointment at the lack of action on wages, the problem of living costs, or the lack of welfare programmes for vulnerable workers. There were divisions between the industrialist position held by the old-left, who continue to consider flexible work as an anomaly to be eliminated, and activists who ask for new forms of welfare to support workers in precarious labour conditions. As a result, the government took no action, thus leaving many young people without any social rights, which has no comparison in other Western European countries.

The Italian left’s future

So what’s next? In the weeks following the elections, some activists feel like they have sleepwalked into this new era of Berlusconi. Attempts at rebuilding grassroots movements are already starting. Social centres groups will soon hold a meeting in Marghera near Venice to discuss the bases for a new alliance. Social and various politicised civil society networks who see the new rise of Berlusconi as a disgrace will also provide an important element for reconstructing the left. Finally, the experiences of progressive local government, such as the Vendola in Apulia or Massimo in the Marche region, and the cities that form part of the ``Nuovo Municipio’’ network, all inspired by principles of participatory democracy, will provide bases from which to begin re-building a new identity for the Italian left.

Nevertheless, the key issue and potential problem facing the left will be how the question of democracy is dealt with both in movements and parties. The personalisation, machoism and media-oriented strategy which characterises the leadership of many grassroots movements has proved detrimental for the credibility of progressive alternatives. The time for self-styled spokespersons of the whole movement is over. Will the movement be able to break away from leader-obsessed politics?

A similar reflection needs to take place in both the Greens and Rifondazione. Many argue that the Green Party has been transformed into an accountable centre of power which has little to do with the original idea of a federation and has lost its values of transparency. The charges of corruption which have hit its leader, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, are just the most visible evidence of this situation. Also it will be important to see how the question of democracy will be dealt with inside Rifondazione which at the moment is torn by a fight over the future of the party and its relation to Arcobaleno between the once majority current led by Bertinotti and a new challenging current endorsed by Ferrero, minister of welfare. The party still has a network of branches across the country that no other left group enjoys. But will it be used for facilitating a recomposition of the left or for tightening control of the grassroots?

The question of democracy which is central for imagining a different future for the Italian left will also crucially entail a new discussion of the relationship between parties, social movements and civil society. The experience of collaboration with parties has proved highly disappointing for most activists. Nonetheless those experiences were the symptom of a felt need to translate self-managed alternatives into more stable collective goods for society. What might be learned from the defeat of this experience is thus the need for a greater autonomy and transparency in the relationship between movements and parties, rather than an outright end to all contact. In this context, the local arenas of struggle which have proved the most dynamic in recent years might provide a crucial space for developing clearer strategies and identities beyond the vague inclusiveness of the anti-globalisation era.

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The crisis of Italy’s political institutions: a view from inside government

April 12, 2008Paolo Ferrero was minister of social solidarity in the Prodi government. He describes to Hilary Wainwright the difficulties of achieving radical reform in the face of a weak coalition, social conservatism and the crisis besetting Italy’s weak political institutions.

What difficulties and obstacles were underestimated or came as a surprise to you on entering the Prodi coalition government?

The feeble majority was really unexpected. We were conscious that the centre right had significant social and cultural strength, since it also obtains significant working-class votes, so is often capable of dictating the political agenda. However, no one imagined that after five years of Berlusconi’s government there would be a substantial draw between the votes of the centre-right and those of the centre-left. The particularly complicated voting system played its part in making one of the two chambers, the Senate, ungovernable.
The structural weakness of the government favoured the political bribery of centre-oriented factions close to the influential organisations (in particular Confindustria, an association of the Italian industrial managers) and of the Catholic Church. This rendered even more difficult than we had imagined our initiative for the redistribution of wealth to the advantage of workers. Even those objectives that seemed, at first glance, relatively easier, such as the acknowledgement of the civil rights same-sex partners, were difficult to achieve.

The weakness of the centre-left coalitions is a faithful mirror of the strength of the social values of the right faction. This strength must be taken into consideration not only in drawing conclusions about Prodi’s government but also when redirecting our future policies. This does not mean that we have to automatically ``moderate’’ our intentions. However, it is important to keep in mind that the electorate is culturally more and more distant from the values of the left-wing parties.

We certainly overestimated the ability to mobilise political movements against even the most moderate policies of the Prodi government. Some positive connection was established, for example, with the mobilisation against the privatisation of the water. For the rest, there was a strong difficulty in connecting with both the most ``radical’’ movements (such as the one against the TAV in Susa Valley, or the one against the NATO base in Vincenza), which were ignored and criticised by the government, and with those of the ``moderate’’ actors (including the trade unions), which chose to negotiate and lobby largely without promoting demonstrations. The result was a scenario completely different from what the Partito della Rifondazione Communista (PRC) had foreseen, rendering its role in the government more difficult, and at times, isolated.

What did you learn from the inside about the crisis of the political institutions, which has always been so central to Rifondazione’s analysis?

The crisis in the Italian institutions is confirmed by the incapacity of the government to respond to the basic necessities of marginalised groups. This incapacity derives principally from the political choice to prioritise economic growth and the management of public debt over wealth distribution. However, the crisis has worsened because of the country’s institutional structure, especially as regards welfare.

We came across this during our experience in the government. Except for the pension system and national health services – which constantly faced attempts to cut their budgets, reduce services or privatise them, but which have relatively “robust” institutional mechanisms – the institutions managing unemployment, poverty, disability, state housing and other social problems are subject to little central control. Their organisation is very fragmented, with a strong role for the regional offices, religious associations and the non-profit sector. In particular, the non-profit sector is often synonymous with contract-less, informal, underpaid work, which implies low quality standards in the social services.

All of this is typical of the contemporary form of capitalism, which generates rising social uncertainty, so should be addressed by an efficient welfare system that is equally available for all.

On the other hand, the institutions have demonstrated a strong capacity to involve in their governance structures all of those associations that look after the interests of citizens, in particular those in disadvantaged circumstances. In fact, from this point of view, the Italian political institutions are not so weak.
An updated analysis of the ``crisis of the political institutions’’ is needed, therefore, which takes into account the fact that this crisis is mitigated by a counter force operating against it.

What lessons do you draw about how to open up a dynamic of transforming these institutions – and about the role of the party and the movements in this process? Is such a transformation possible? If so, under what conditions?

What I have mentioned above demonstrates that there is closure in the institutions when dealing with general economic policies. On the other hand, they are also very open in their day-to-day administration. What is needed now is for the institutions to open up to more complex solutions regarding the [economic] necessities of their citizens, beyond simply their openness to collaboration with citizens’ associations.
For this to happen, there would need to be a shift in the balance of forces – brought on by (a) the worsening of the Italian crisis (even in relation to the foreseen global economic crisis); (b) the associated failure of the moderate leftwing project (as embodied by the new Democratic Party) and (c) the ability of workers and citizens to organise themselves in committees that are not simply about civil defence. It isn’t easy to foresee a situation when these factors coincide.

Meanwhile, the PRC could unite the different left-wing factions to construct a “critical mass” that is necessary for political effectiveness, reconstructing its militant base, gaining political trust and re-orienting itself in relation to its electorate. Secondly, it could take advantage of the decentralization of Italy to act at regional and even local level, to bypass the closure of opportunities on the national sphere. Thirdly, the PRC could contribute to the construction of a popular self-organised network to act as a counterpart to both the regional and national governance.

All this, and above all the last point mentioned, presupposes a re-evaluation of the role of movements and of the party. On the one hand, the limits of the political movements must be considered – including their failure, sometimes, to reach out to the broader public. As a result of their language and practices that are often as far from the needs of the people as the political parties themselves are. However, these limits can not be overcome by pedagogic intervention from the party. The political movements and the associations that form part of their governing structures have to identify the problems and solutions based on their own practices and background. On the other hand, a political party is need more than ever, that can have a wider vision than that of the PRC, and that can be more competent and more grounded in society.

How did the PRC prepare for its role in government? With the benefit of hindsight are there further ways it should have prepared?

I believe the PRC was not prepared enough for its participation in the government and did not have a proper political culture for this challenging task. Partly, this was inevitable: inexperience does count.
However, there was at least one avoidable error: that of interpretation. A group within the PRC thought this to be a government of change, based on a dynamic compromise between the workers movement and some of the more economically advanced parts of the “bourgeoisie”. But the conditions for this to occur were not there. At present, there is no interest from the economically well-off to find a ``dynamic compromise’’. Namely a compromise based on the acknowledgement of the autonomy of the workers’ movement, on the adequate ``payment’’ for production (rather than simply increasing profit and growth), on acknowledging the collective knowledge and creative ability of the workforce as a determinant in social innovation and thus in production itself. Only the unfolding of the economic crisis in conjunction with a resumption of social conflict could, possibly, construct the conditions for such a compromise.

The Prodi government was more of a compromise between political factions where the moderate left could occasionally be forced (for electoral reasons) to make some concessions to the radical left. This ``exchange’’ could have led to some positive results. In fact, Prodi’s government had recuperated some part of the tax evasions that were instigated by Berlusconi’s government, and part of this wealth – as a result of initiatives by the PRC and other radical left parties – should now have been redistributed to workers. Maybe it is not a coincidence that the government has failed exactly when something tangible could have been achieved. But, in any case, even if such a result would have given some hope to workers, it would not have been a real change. Deluding the electorate and militants by speaking of the possibilities of real change was a big mistake, because after the illusions came the disillusions.

In brief, there was a wrong analysis of the balance of forces, of the strong influence of dominant social and economic groups, and of the nature of the centre-left.

How should lessons from this period of government shape a new phase for the left in

The first lesson is that a real ``progressive’’ government is only possible if the mechanisms of force are different between the social classes. Should that not be the case, and for some reason we are obliged to participate in the government, the limits of our ability to negotiate and reach our objectives must be explained with far greater clarity and sincerity.

The second lesson is that, to participate in a government and to act as an effective opposition, a left leader must be able to count consistently on 10 per cent of the electorate. Most importantly, this leader must address the working class and construct a social based from those who been stably organised, starting with the trade unions. Finally, such leadership requires a person who can meet with intellectual workers (environmental activists, lawyers, economists, architects, etc.), whose inputs are essential for defining the policies or for opposing in a constructive manner the policies defined by others. There is a need for a “social” and “competent” party, in other words.

The Sinistra Arcobaleno has been born in the hope that it might solve this problem. The party must overcome the quantitative limits of Rifondazione, not dissolving the different parts that make it up, but constructing a federal structure that includes not only the different political currents but those associations that want to sign up. It must construct “case della sinistra” [left houses] all over Italy, capable of offering firstly a place of social aggregation and secondly, a place for discussions and political initiatives. An alliance between the social classes must be built between the workers and the intellectuals (who are no more than workers of a particular type and who, like other workers, suffer similarly uncertain and precarious labour and social conditions).

The political phase that has just opened is more diverse than the previous one. The political parties of the Ulivo and the La Margherita have come together under the banner of the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD). This party is in the Blairite, New Labour mould. It will run for election by itself, breaking its previous relations with the radical left, and move in a more centrist direction. Even if Berlusconi’s new party, born of the merger (for now only for electoral reasons) of his Forza Italia party and Fini’s post-fascist party, is definitely ahead in the polls, although the PD is gaining some support. It is not improbable, after the elections, that we will see a political accord between Veltroni and Berlusconi. In any case, the radical left seems likely to a face long period of opposition.

A strong Sinistra Arcobaleno opposition, capable of capitalising on the difficulties that the next government will face, as well as the decentralisation of policy making; and capable of reconstructing its social ties, has the capacity to make decisive progress. It could organise the resistance and prepare the conditions for a broader change in future. This is our challenge.

[Paolo Ferrero is an MP for the Partito della Rifondazione Communista and was minister of social solidarity in the Prodi government.]


Movements and left parties should keep a respectful distance

Alessandra Mecozzi, international secretary of FIOM, the Italian metalworkers union, describes to Hilary Wainwright the weakened state of the movements, including the trade union movement, and draws some harsh lessons.

Are the movements weaker or stronger after the experience of the left in government? Could you comment especially on the trade union movement?

We wouldn’t be telling the truth if we blamed simply the Prodi government for the current weakness of social movements. These movements are facing a crisis all over the world, with the exception, perhaps, of
Latin America. Moreover, the weakness of Prodi’s government was in part an outcome of a more general social and cultural regression. It is evident, for example, in the emergence of racism, in indifference in the face of war, in widespread everyday violence, especially towards women, in the defeat of the referendum on abortion and in the weakening of social rights including workers rights. The decline in workers rights has meant a high rate of accidents in the workplace which culminated recently in the deaths of seven employees in a fire at Thyssen Krupp.

Prior to the Prodi government, leftist social and trade union movements were growing, with positive programs for change. But we needed some tangible results from the government for these to have a real social impact. This did not materialise. The internal political dynamics of this fractious and heterogeneous government rendered it incapable of making the most of the potential of the movements to achieve change. In particular, the divisions which constantly freeze up the left (a characteristic of the left even prior to the Prodi government) meant that no political support was offered to social struggles, including those around improving employment conditions or opposing the war.

Even the most influential confederation of trade unions, the CGIL - which had fought and won a significant battle to preserve L’articolo 18 (which protects workers against unfair dismissal) and which participated massively to the anti-war movements – was quick to back down on its commitment to social movements. Recently, it has even stopped mentioning movements in its internal debates. At its Congress earlier this year, to which Prodi was invited, the CGIL clearly gave up on maintaining its autonomy. Other movement actors followed the CGIL’s attitude: both those supporting (and at least not opposing) the government and those openly against them. The autonomy of the movements has been undermined by a mistaken instinct to judge everything according to the actions of the government. This reactive approach – whether pro- or anti-government -- and the failure to develop an autonomous perspective on the actual issues facing society has been a very damaging, stopping everyone from analysing the real situation.

Were the movements prepared for the experience of the radical left in government? Looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, how should you/the movements have prepared better?

The first lesson to be learnt is that the autonomy of the movements is an essential principle necessary for their continued existence (the same is true for trade unions who wish to keep their connections with the movements). In no circumstances should this be compromised. A lesson here is that the movements should have put more thought into distinguishing themselves from the political left (even if radical) during the Berlusconi government. This would have put them in a stronger position vis a vis the Prodi government. The latter government would even have benefited from more powerful movements. Had the movements been stronger, the parties which dominated this coalition in parliament would not prevail.

For example, the main priority of the Prodi government was to eradicate Italy’s financial deficit, which was surely an important goal, but it became an excuse to forget other important social objectives that needed to be addressed. Stronger, more autonomous, movements would have been a counter pressure to this. The left had not prepared itself – through a careful and shared analysis – for the consequences of its participation in government. Perhaps some form of preparation drawing on those principles that made the European Social Forum in Florence - autonomy, unity and radicalism – might have been led to some successes.

What now? What lessons from the last two years need to be borne in mind in from a movement point of view, for the future of the Sinistra Archebolena? At present it is dominated by political parties. What needs to be done/what conditions need to exist for it be more rooted in movements and social conflicts?

Some of the movements (which had already been weakened by years of conflict and bickering without reaching any tangible solutions) invested all of their hopes and expectations in the Prodi government. This in turn disappointed them. The government’s initial survival was more a consequence of “social peace” than (as it should have been) the result of social conflict combined with the government’s potential capacity to deliver solutions. In fact, the Government only delivered its promise to withdraw Italian troops from
Iraq. It failed to deliver its other manifesto were not delivered, including withdrawal of our military presence in Afghanistan and also legislation to protect the rights of civil union.

What is more, the military budget was increased and Prodi persisted in the expansion of the American military base in Vicenza. Other laws from the previous legislation, including the “legge 30” on precarious employment, the Bossi-Fini law on immigration and the building of TAV all remained unchallenged, in spite of many protests and alternative proposals. (See Vittorio Longhi at on the record of the Prodi government).

The CGIL, the other two trade union federations, CISL and UILl, supported government policies on welfare without any prior consultation, that penalized the most active and socially rooted section of workers and unions. My union FIOM, the metalworkers union, voted against these policies. Meanwhile the attack on the national contract on employment continues. This contract has been a fundamental means of defending workers’ interests. The employers want to bring all negotiations back to the company level, exchanging a rise in salaries with more flexibility, hence worsening employment conditions by increasing productivity at the expense of the workers’ freedom and health. The trade union federations do not seem to be resisting this call of the employers.

For these reasons, the centre-left government that has just fallen has not been a good experience for the movements. Today, we find ourselves weakened and without a strategy. We should, however, be capable of facing up to our responsibilities. We should be able to work – and already we are starting to – reconstruct alliances and develop shared perspectives. The work of the unions – and increasing the social movements – has become, more than ever, a labour of Sisyphus - as Rosa Luxembourg once pointed out . But perhaps we can learn from this and recognise that we must restart by treasuring past experiences and take action to construct and re-construct.

The Italian paradox is that vibrant movements do exist but they are incapable of developing their own solutions, or where they do, they have unable to gain the political support to build on such solutions. It need not always be like this. It only the movements and the left parties could learn to recognise each other’s significance yet keep a mutual distance and act upon their respective ideas, we would already be taking a step forward in the right direction. However in the dynamics of politics and parties, a mimicry seems to prevail, whereby ``differences’’ never truly emerge and parties seem reluctant to distinguish themselves from one another (evidence of the political caste!).

Unless movements learn culturally to let go of government and institutional reference points, they will fail. They risk loosing their connections with society. Without these social roots they will be unable to act as necessary connecting points between society and institutions. Those trade unions who wish to maintain a relationship with the movements, because of a shared outlook, need to safeguard a strong and democratic relationship with the workers that they represent – ensuring that it is the workers who have the final say in the decision-making process. At the same time, we as trade unions must try to build widespread relationships and initiatives with all those who are trying to oppose war, racism and liberalism, in order to come up with alternatives and taking the best from each movement.

Even at the best of times this is very demanding cultural and practical endeavour. This is why it would have been very useful to have created a solid forum at the national level both before and after the Prodi government. It would have meant a real positive change in the Italian political, social, and cultural landscape. Novelties in this scene are emerging from La Sinistra Arcobaleno/ Cosa Rossa, from whom everyone expects, at least, clear objectives. An alternative determined against war, militarism, Vatican fundamentalism, environmental degradation, and instability in the workplace. The party is also expected to protect civil rights, support the interests of the working class, the unemployed, and propose more environmentally conscious policies. We shall see.

[These articles first appeared at the Transnational Institute website ( Posted with permission.]


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