Italy has a weakness for populism. The aging population, a large flow of migrants and refugees from Southern and Eastern Mediterranean countries, and systematic corruption are among the most significant drivers of populism in the country. Today, the Lega Nord proposes an Italy that is firmly anti-migrant, Romaphobic, anti-European, and anti-globalist; the M5S’s “catch-all” style politics that combines anti-establishment rhetoric with neoliberal economic ideas makes it a benign populist force, which allows it to reach even larger masses.
Located in south-central Europe, Italy, officially the Italian Republic, is a unitary parliamentary republic and a core member of the European Union (EU) (See Italian Constitution). Due to its historical role and influence, Italy has a special place in the history of world politics. Not all of this history is illustrious: it was the birthplace of the first organized, violent authoritarian, “fascist” regime. In January 1925, a fascist dictatorship was proclaimed, with Benito Andrea Mussolini imposing totalitarian rule and crushing political and intellectual opposition, as well as the country’s Jewish population. Mussolini promoted traditional social values and a rapprochement with the Roman Catholic Church. Mussolini’s brutal regime inspired Adolf Hitler’s fascism in Germany. Originally associated with the Fascist Revolutionary Party (PFR), the succeeding National Fascist Party (PNF), and finally the Republican Fascist Party until its demise in 1943, the fascist ideology, even a century later, remains relatively powerful in the country.
After the Second World War, the decades-old monarchy was abolished, and Italy was declared a republic in 1946. Some three years later, in 1949, the country then became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), marking the beginning of Italy’s full-fledged alliance with and integration into the Western bloc. In 1957, Italy became a founding member of the European Economic Community (EEC), later the EU. Backed by the U.S.-sponsored Marshall Plan – or the European Recovery Program – Italy experienced an “economic miracle” in the 1960s, during which its economy enjoyed an unprecedented period of sustained growth. The 1970s and 1980s were characterized by an economic crisis, significant social conflicts, and terrorist attacks, such as the murder of Prime Minister Aldo Moro by a left-wing armed group named the Red Brigades in 1978 and the bombing of Bologna’s train station that killed 84 in 1980.
In the early 1990s, Mani Pulite (Clean hands in English – a nationwide judicial investigation into “the corrupt elites” of the country) (Vannucci, 2009) triggered a political upheaval, dooming almost all of the country’s long-standing political parties, such as the Democrazia Cristiana (DC), Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI) and the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI). A fundamental mistrust in politics that emerged with the corruption scandal boosted the first wave of Italian populism under the leadership of media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, who served as Prime Minister between 1994 and 2011. Due to the circumstances of the time, Berlusconi’s populism was heavily sauced with an anti-establishment resonance, which offered to fight the country’s corrupt elites.
The second populist wave came during the European sovereign debt crisis of the 2010s. The crisis turned two political organizations into major political actors on the Italian political scene: the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) and the Lega Nord. Only four years into its foundation, M5S won the most votes in the 2013 national election (See Parties…) They eventually ascended to power in the 2018 general election by gathering almost 50 percent of all votes.
There are currently 12 populist political parties in Italy. The Lega Nord, led by Matteo Salvini, is the most controversial of them. It is a classic right-wing populist party with a very tough stance against immigration, especially from Muslim countries. The party is therefore frequently categorized as “xenophobic.” In 2018 and 2019, Salvini, then-interior minister, pushed through several major anti-immigration decrees – officially known as the immigration and security decrees – abolishing humanitarian protection for those who are not eligible for refugee status (Tondo & Giuffrida, 2018). The decrees also introduced a fine of up to €50,000 for NGOs that bring migrants ashore without official permission. Government spending on migrant intake plummeted significantly during Salvini’s tenure. Tens of refugee centers were closed in southern Italy. Hundreds of refugees were evicted from Sicily, “the refugee camp of Europe,” as Salvini once put it. He said, “I am being paid by citizens to help our young people start having children again the way they did a few years ago, and not to uproot the best of the African youth to replace Europeans who are not having children anymore” (Reuters, 2018).
Along with his hard anti-immigration stance, the Lega Nord leader also declared war against the country’s Roma community, reviving the centuries-old prejudice against Italy’s largest ethnic minority, one estimated at nearly 170,000 members. In June 2019, Salvini called for a census of the Roma community and asked regional officials to draft a detailed report on the settlements of Roma, Sinti, and Camminanti, as part of his plan to send non-Italians back to their countries of origin (Schumacher, 2019). He was “sorry” that he could not expel those who possess Italian citizenship: “Unfortunately, we have to keep them” (Bettiza, 2018). Salvini’s attempt to revive the ill-treatment of the nomadic ethnic groups was a deliberately populist move in a nation that by and large still have an overwhelmingly negative view of the Roma community (Pew, 2016).
Salvini is also considered a hardline Eurosceptic politician due to his highly critical stance towards the EU, and the euro, which he considers a “crime against humanity” (ANSA, 2015). He and his party are in support of tax cuts, fiscal federalism, and protectionism while opposing same-sex marriage.
The M5S is another populist party that advances a slew of anti-establishment, anti-globalist, and Eurosceptic views. It departs from the Lega Nord’s classic right-wing populism by holding a slightly more inclusive and unpredictable understanding of the term (Lanzone, 2014). The fact that the M5S is a movement, not a party in the sense of an organized group of people who have the same ideology, makes it flexible enough to embrace a wide range of ideologies, which are often advocated either by traditional left- or right-wing parties. As an anti-establishment movement, perhaps unsurprisingly, the M5S directly appeals to the “people” and “common citizens,” who are centered in the movement’s rhetoric; more traditionally, the movement opposes “the corrupt elite.” The five stars on its logo reveal how the party intends to give back power to all Italians: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, right to Internet access, and environmentalism.
Although the M5S’s position on immigration is not as sharp as that of the Lega, the party “silently” embraces almost all the basic premises of the Lega’s anti-immigration/xenophobic positions (Caiani, 2019). The movement’s official program summarizes its position on this particular matter: “Immigration. Objective Zero Landings. Italy is not the refugee camp of Europe” (M5S, 2017). In December 2016, Beppe Grillo, then leader of the M5S, called for the immediate deportation of all “illegal” migrants, and for the temporary suspension of the Schengen in the wake of the terrorist attack in Berlin (ANSA, 2016). Although initially reluctant, the M5S passed its coalition partner Salvini’s controversial anti-migrant decrees in 2018 and 2019. Yet, it should be noted that while the Lega’s primary focus is immigration, M5S has mainly made anti-corruption measures its key initiative.
Founded in December 2012, Brothers of Italy (FDI) is another populist party worthy of note. The party’s main ideological trends revolve around Italian nationalism, conservatism, Euroscepticism. Garnering almost 1.5 million votes in the 2018 general election, FDI managed to obtain 31 seats in Parliament.
In terms of civil liberties, Italy is a free country. Italians enjoy regular and competitive multiparty elections, while the country boasts a decent record of civil liberties, human rights, and political opportunities (Freedom House, 2019). However, the country remains fertile ground for populism. Especially since the 1994 proclamation of the Second Republic, populist parties and populist leaders that are often at odds with liberal democratic values have been a permanent feature of Italian politics. The aging population, a massive influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, and the systematic and institutional corruption are among the most significant drivers of populism in the country. Today, the Lega Nord proposes an Italy that is firmly anti-migrant, anti-EU, and anti-globalist. In fact, its anti-immigrant obsession is increasingly becoming the sole reason for its political existence. The party’s persistent xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric played a significant role in its ability to form Western Europe’s “first all-populist government” in coalition with the M5S in June 2018.
Countering Lega Nord’s overt right-wing populism, the M5S’s “catch-all” style combining anti-establishment rhetoric with neoliberal economic ideas makes it a benign populist force, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, allows it to reach larger masses. Led by these two parties, and with at least ten smaller populist parties, Italian populism has the potential to impact the future of the European project as a whole.
July 5, 2020
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Bettiza, Sofia. (2018). “Treated like dogs: Italy’s Roma minority on society’s fringe”. BBC News. June 29, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-44632472
Caiani, Manuela. (2019). “How Italy’s all-populist government viewed Muslims: A ‘Muslims in the West’ reaction”. Brookings, December 4, 2019. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/how-italys-all-populist-government-views-muslims/
Lanzone, Maria Elizabetta. (2014). “The post-modern populism in Italy: The case of the Five Star Movement”. In: Dwayne Woods; Barbara Wejnert (eds.) Many Faces of Populism: Current Perspectives. 2014, Emerald Group Publishing.
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Tondo, Lorenzo & Giuffrida, Angela. (2018). “Vulnerable migrants made homeless after Italy passes ‘Salvini decree’”. The Guardian. December 7, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/07/vulnerable-migrants-made-homeless-after-italy-passes-salvini-decree
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 Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), Lega Nord (Northern League), Movimento 5 Stelle (The Five Star Movement), Potere al Popolo (Power to the People), CasaPound Italia (CasaPound Italy), Italia agli Italiani (Italy for the Italians), Per una Sinistra Rivoluzionaria (For a Revolutionary Left), Die Freiheitlichen, Forza Nuova (New Force), Movimento Sociale Fiamma Tricolore (The Social Movement Tricolour Flame), Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori (The Workers’ Communist Party), Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (The Communist Refoundation Party).