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What’s happening in Italy? Populism, continuity and change
Populism is not a new phenomenon in Italy. In the early 1990s, strong mobilisation against the political elite followed a series of corruption scandals (tangentopoli), which led to the collapse of the established party system. However, between the late 1990s and early 2000s a process of normalisation and stabilisation of party dynamics occurred. The Great Recession triggered a new phase of political instability that opened new opportunities for movements and parties adopting not only a populist ‘style’ but also a (thin) populist ‘ideology’, which focuses on the struggle of ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’.
Today two main parties are generally regarded as populist In Italy: the Northern League (LN) and the Five Star Movement (M5S). The former is usually defined as a populist radical right party and, quite interestingly, is the oldest political party currently competing in the Italian system. It has been represented in parliament since the late 1980s, while all other parties have completely transformed, merged or even disappeared. This challenges the idea that populism is an episodic phenomenon and populist parties are not able to adjust to changing political circumstances. In fact, the ‘chameleonic’ nature of the LN’s populism has helped this party stay in government without losing its electoral appeal and overcome periods of crisis and electoral decline. One clear example of how the LN reframed its populist discourse is its changing approach to territorial issues. The party started as a representative of the people of the North of Italy against the corrupted elite in Rome, campaigning for more autonomy and federalism. In the late 1990s, it radicalised its demands and became a secessionist party and rejected any alliance with mainstream parties. Following a period of political isolation and electoral decline, the party abandoned this radical platform and started shifting its attention from ‘internal enemies’ (i.e. the ‘Roman’ elite and southern Italians) to ‘external enemies’, the EU and the immigrants in particular. Under the new leader, Matteo Salvini, it has completely abandoned the federalist agenda and has become a nationalist party, similar to the French National Front, seeking to represent the whole Italian people against the corrupted elite in Brussels. The target has changed – it used to be Rome, now it is Brussels – but the populist discourse based on the struggle of the oppressed people against a geographically distant, exploitative and corrupt elite is still valid.
While the LN has been politically relevant for more than twenty years, the 5 Star Movement (M5S) is a relatively young political force in the Italian scene. Additionally, unlike the LN, the M5S has not relied on traditional organisational structures and defining it as a ‘party’ is indeed quite problematic. It started as a network of local committees that were linked to the blog of former comedian Beppe Grillo and then started building a national structure in the late 2000s. In 2013, the first general election which the Movement contested, it obtained around 25% of the vote, a result that no other newly formed party has ever achieved in the history of the Italian republic (Berlusconi obtained around 20% in 1994, when he founded his own party). Many factors contributed to its success but there is a general consensus that the economic crisis that hit Italy and other Southern European countries also determined a crisis of the established political system, which became more vulnerable to anti-establishment campaigns. Yet unlike the main populist movements of Southern Europe, such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, the M5S adopted a populist discourse that cannot be classified as ‘left-wing’ and, more generally, cannot be clearly located on the left-right political continuum. In this respect, the M5S is a rather peculiar case in Europe. Interestingly, immediately after their electoral breakthrough in 2013, the leader of the M5S explicitly defined the movement as ‘populist’, denying it would move either to the left or to the right by establishing alliances with other parties. Yet the movement is also experiencing a phase of institutionalisation particularly after Beppe Grillo decided to step aside. The new ‘official’ leader, the 31 year-old Luigi Di Maio has sought to portray the movement as a more credible alternative to the established parties and has not completely ruled out an alliance with other populist parties (particularly the Northern League) and even with mainstream parties.
Some have argued that also Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia (Forward Italy, FI) can be defined as a populist party. A ‘neoliberal’ populist party less focused on immigration and nativist issues than the LN, FI has placed more emphasis on campaigns against state bureaucracy and the intellectual elite. Additionally, Berlusconi has adopted a communication style that can be defined as populist since he has tried to establish a direct connection between the ‘charismatic’ leader and the people (between 2008 and 2013 his party was even called the People of Freedom). Given his background and his unconventional approach to politics, he has even been portrayed as a sort of precursor of Donald Trump, although less radical than the latter in his policy proposals. Again, the case of Berlusconi shows that populism can be resilient (he has played a politically relevant role since 1994). Interestingly, in a scenario that is increasingly dominated by much more radical and anti-system populist forces, Berlusconi is seen as an element of moderation and stability within the Italian party system and many hope that his party could prevent Salvini’s LN from becoming the strongest one on the right. Indeed, over the last months Berlusconi has made his full return to the political arena and this has produced a shift in support from the LN to FI.
Populism seems to have influenced even the centre-left. Matteo Renzi, leader of the Democratic Party (PD) has adopted a sort of ‘soft’ populist style, which is targeted at those, more dynamic, sectors of the electorate that are disillusioned with traditional politics and politicians. For instance, at the beginning of his political career at the national level, Renzi was dubbed the Scrapper, because he wanted to get rid of the old political elite that, in his view, had been unable to prevent Italy’s social and economic crisis. In this respect, he is quite similar to Emmanuel Macron in France. Yet his leadership is still constrained by a more institutionalised party apparatus , although recent developments suggest that the PD is slowly shifting towards what some observers define as ‘Renzi’s Party’ (Partito di Renzi) .
The election in March 2018 could mark a further expansion of populist support. In 2013, LN and M5S together obtained around 30% of the vote, current polls (which should be interpreted with caution) suggest that they might go well beyond 40%, with the M5S quite close to 30% and the LN close to 15%. This without considering the other two parties that formed a coalition with the LN: the ‘hybrid’ case of Berlusconi’s party, which is predicted to obtain around 16-17% of the vote, and another right-wing party, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), which, like the LN, has embraced a nativist populist discourse. The incumbent coalition, led by the PD, is currently behind the centre-right front and the M5S. It is very unlikely that the new electoral law, a mixed proportional-majoritarian system introduced last year, will produce a clear parliamentary majority. An unstable post-election scenario could therefore increase the chance of an even stronger populist wave.
The articles in this blog series draw on presentations given at the What’s Happening in Contemporary Western Politics? PSA event (British Academy, 25 January 2018). The event was chaired by award-winning journalist and broadcaster Michael Crick, with contributions from PSA Specialist Groups’ experts. At the core of the discussion lied the following questions: Is this really is a 'populist moment'? What do we actually mean by populism? What are the implications of recent events for Western liberal democracies? The main goal was to reach beyond academia and foster a critical and constructive debate open to the civil-society groups, practitioners, journalists, policy-makers and the wider public. You can watch a video of the event here.
Davide Vampa is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University. He tweets @DavideVampa.
Image: Luca Perino CC BY-NC-ND