Marco Pannella: life and death of an Italian radical leader

Marco Pannella: life and death of an Italian radical leader

“The greatest crime is to stay with our arms folded”

On May 19, 2016 the historic radical leader Marco Pannella passed away at the age of 86, he was the symbol of civil rights in Italy. Throughout his life, he pursued controversial but fundamental battles, central to the Italian public debate in recent decades.


His death follows the anniversary of another Italian symbol’s demise, the judge and prosecuting magistrate Giovanni Falcone, killed by the Corleonesi Mafia on May  18th 1992.

Marco Pannella fought against cancer for few years and lately his condition had considerably worsened.

Born in Teramo (Abruzzo) in 1930, after graduating in law, he founded in 1955 the Radical Party, newly born from a split within the Italian Liberal Party.

Within this party, he began to support secular battles and in favour of civil rights, starting with the one on divorce. Thanks to these battles, in 1976 the radicals were able to elect representatives in parliament for the first time, including Pannella himself.

Strongly against the governments of the Christian Democrats and their dialogue with the Italian Communist Party, during the so-called Years of Lead, characterized by political violence, Pannella promoted a non-violent opposition to the government’s laws on public order.

Among the nonviolent initiatives, the breach of the ban on demonstrations imposed in 1977 by Interior Minister Francesco Cossiga, in which the young student Giorgiana Masi was killed.

With the regularization of the referenda which took place in the Seventies, Pannella, as leader of the Radical Party, launched a long series of petitions to promote consultations for the repeal of several laws.

Marco Pannella durante uno sciopero della fame a Roma, nel 1976. - Romano Gentile, A3/Contrasto

Among other non-violent initiatives there were also his hunger and thirst strikes, made to focus attention on a number of topics, such as the amnesty and the rights of inmates.

In 1981, when the Movement for Life, a conservative Italian association that aims at defending the right to life and dignity of every person, and to inform about what concerns human life and death (such as sexuality, responsible parenthood, adoption, abortion, genetic manipulation, euthanasia, suicide) promoted the referendum to abolish the law on abortion, the radicals promoted a parallel referendum – which was rejected - to abolish all existing restrictions to the interruption of pregnancy.

In the 1980’s, the Radical Party of Marco Pannella also started environmentalist and anti-nuclearizes campaigns.

For almost thirty years, Pannella was member of the European Parliament, taking part in the Committee of Legal Affairs,  the Committee on Budgetary Control and in the Delegation for relations with Israel.

Among his numerous battles, that for the abolition of the death penalty in the world, that for a majority electoral law with single-member districts, one against the public financing of political parties, another for the legalization of marijuana. Regarding this last topic, for decades Pannella was the face of Italian anti-prohibition, getting routinely arrested for distributing marijuana as act of civil disobedience.

Of course, some of his political choices were fairly questionable rather than unscrupulous, such as the alliance in the Eighties he had with Bettino Craxi, head of the Italian Socialist Party from 1976 to 1993 and Prime Minister from 1983 to 1987, and then in 1994 with Silvio Berlusconi.

However Pannella did it in the belief of being able, in this way, to undermine the dominance of political parties and corporations; those choices were episodes in a long battle to make Italy a more modern country and human country. Many of those battles are won by now, others are still open. But if today, in Italy, we discuss of the right to dispose of our own life or of gay rights or antiprohibitionism, we owe it largely to Marco Pannella.

Marco Pannella’s last battle, however, was that for the amnesty, so in 2011 he carried out his longest hunger strike, which lasted nearly three months.


Leave a Reply