Twenty-First Century Italy: A Case of Chronic Populism?

, by Nikos Chircop

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Twenty-First Century Italy: A Case of Chronic Populism?
Former Prime Minister and Forza Italia leder Silvio Berlusconi at the June 2019 EPP summit in Brussels. European People’s Party (EPP) on Flickr

January’s round of regional elections in Italy saw the social democratic, pro-European Partito Democratico (PD), the senior coalition partner in the national Government, come out on top. This by no means suggests, however, that the EU’s third largest economy has been cleansed of the right-wing populist virus which, for far longer than the current COVID-19 outbreak, has infected the nation.

Said outbreak traces its roots to the implosion of the Italian political system in the mid-1990s, a crisis which permanently changed Italian politics to this very day. It was the Tangentopoli corruption scandal of 1992 which led to the demise of the ‘invincible’ Democrazia Cristiana (DC), which had governed the country in successive coalitions from 1946 to 1994. The downfall of the DC created an upheaval in the entire system with the other long-standing parties: the Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI) and the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI), as well as the electoral system itself collapsing. This was a crisis which culminated in a so-called “Second Republic’’ emerging in 1994. A second republic characterised by a fundamental mistrust in politics, and an abandonment of ideology towards populist, issue-based politics.

The wake of this political earthquake marked the rise of the first wave of Italian populism, caricatured by media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, who between 1994 to 2011 had three stints as President of the Council of Ministers, as leader of Forza Italia. Under his populist premiership, the economy saw dismal growth rates. In addition to this, the businessman turned politician left office leaving behind a weakened rule of law, which could be twisted and turned to protect Berlusconi and those close to him. The seeds of the second wave of populism of the 2010s were sown not only by the economic negligence which manifested itself during the country’s sovereign debt crisis, but also by the political system’s cooperation with the “black horse” of Italian politics: Lega Nord.

The 2010s saw the emergence of two populist parties in the national fray: the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) and the Lega (previously Lega Nord). Their ascent to eventual power in the 2018 general election came after a bitter decade of economic austerity and consecutive crises. In 2011, the technocratic administration led by economist Mario Monti was left to pick up the pieces of the Berlusconi decade. This only increased the public’s disillusionment with the political system the public – as demonstrated by a 2013 general election in which M5S, led by comedian Beppe Grillo, became the largest party, gaining 25.56% of the popular vote and narrowly defeating the PD (25.43%). The PD, in fact, only came on top due to its electoral alliance with left of centre parties and by faring better in seats in the Chamber of Deputies. At that stage, the Lega Nord, which still focused solely on regional issues, obtained a mere 4% of the vote.

In retrospect, the M5S can be defined as a ‘catch-all’ party, combining various strands of anti-establishmentarianism and practising what can be considered ‘benign populism’. The party’s aims were unclear – mainly, because party policy was largely dictated by the Rousseau Platform, an online system used to consult for M5S members. Its very members, in fact, included a melange of anti-corruption activists, environmentalists, Eurosceptics, advocates of direct democracy and Universal Basic Income proponents. This lack of direction and dependence on the ever-changing opinions of people voting on online polls may have worked in the context of 2013 – and indeed led them to government in 2018 – but have made M5S’s long-term survival difficult. Support for the party has halved, from from 34.1% in March 2018 to 14.6% in February 2020.

This decline can be linked to a number of factors. First of all, it is proving to be impossible to juggle being in government and pursuing the party’s inherent anti-establishmentarianism – just in the same way the party found a coalition with the far-right Lega hard to stomach. By being part of government, M5S seems to have lost its raison d’etre – at least, in the eyes of large sectors of its electorate. The glue which bound the broad church together, as it were, seems to have weakened, as illustrated by large swathes of the party’s Eurosceptics and anti-migration support evaporating to Lega and the other centre right parties. Similarly, much of the party’s left-of-centre support has also transferred to the PD – particularly, after the latter’s election of Nicola Zingaretti, perceived as down-to-earth and as a breath of fresh air after former Prime Minister and party leader Matteo Renzi.

Following the 2013, the brewing discontent with the political establishment left a void too large for M5S to fill. And the premiership of an arguably neoliberal Matteo Renzi (2014-6) who governed during a period of economic stagnation, did not help. The last straw for many voters was the infamous 2014 Jobs Act, widely perceived as an assault on workers’ right and rejected by large swathes of Renzi’s own party. All of this, of course, in the midst of a surge of migrants in the wake of turmoil in Libya and Syria, with some 700,000 refugees and irregular migrants having entered Italy since 2014.

The perfect opportunity for the regional, far-right and populist, Lega Nord presented itself. Re-branded as Lega and led by a charismatic Matteo Salvini, the party rode a wave of political discontent and entered the national government in 2018, only to be booted out after an attempt by Salvini. And, although not currently the government, the Lega still leads most polls, with 30.3% support in February 2020.5

The Lega’s message has remained unchanged: it is still a firmly anti-migrant, anti-European, and anti-globalist movement. Even in his brief tenure as Interior Minister, Salvini repeatedly refused to comply with international law, preventing 131 migrants from entering Italian waters in a move which led him to lose his political immunity against facing trial. This, along with his persistent xenophobic rhetoric and Lega’s refusal to comply with the EU’s budget deficit rules, spells a threat to Italian democracy itself. The fact that one man and his party are so prepared to disregard international and European law, as well as political oponents, exemplifies the threat a Salvini administration would pose to liberal democracy. The COVID-19 outbreak, in fact, is the last case in point, with Salvini using the pandemic as an excuse to spread fake news about migrants being disease carriers, thus ostracising the Chinese community in Italy.

The ‘Salvini’ brand of populism threatens Italian democracy itself: it disregards the rule of law and fails to respect political minorities. But it would be inaccurate to blame all of Italy’s woes on Salvini – for he is the symptom, not the source of a chronic issue which seems only to be getting worse as the century progresses. And Italy – which isn’t by any means the only Member State to suffer the populist virus – is a case study for the rest of Europe. If it continues spreading, it can seriously affect the future of European integration and of the European project as a whole.

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