Eyes on Europe: The Italian elections

Author: Nanovic.nd.edu

Five Star Rally with speaker

Lucia Manzi answers questions about populism and party politics in Italy today. A Ph.D. candidate in Political Science, and currently a Graduate Fellow at the Institute (17/18), Manzi's dissertation focuses on precisely these topics.

Is "populism" the best term to describe what is going on in Italy right now?

If we define "populism" as the expression of anti-establishment feelings, yes, populism is definitely what is going on in Italy right now. Both the 5 Star Movement and the League, the big winners in the last election, have rallied supporters around them by channeling deep feelings of discontent toward the political establishment. For instance, both the League and the 5 Star Movement have expressed unambiguous anti-EU feelings. While Salvini (the League's leader) is still talking explicitly about leaving the EU, the 5 Star Movement has for now abandoned this idea. Nevertheless, the 5 Star Movement has always been very clear in its rejection of EU economic policies. In different ways, both parties channel resentments toward the European Union.

However, the 5 Star Movement clearly surpasses the League in its populism. The 5 Star Movement's explicitly stated goal is to get rid of "professional politicians" and replace them with "the average citizen." For this reason, a couple of days after the election, Di Maio, the 5 Star Movement leader, argued that the 5 Star Movement's electoral success marked the birth of the Third Republic, "The Citizens' Republic." The 5 Star Movement's absolute rejection of traditional politics finds its utmost expression in the party's organization, which occurs almost exclusively through the party's online platform, called "Rosseau," sometimes with paradoxical results. Because the Movement has chosen its candidates for each district through online competitions, many of those who were selected and eventually elected are completely unknown to the party's leadership.

Of all the political parties in Italy, why was the Five Star Movement (M5S) so successful?

Probably the main reason behind the 5 Star Movement's electoral success is Italy's long-lasting economic struggle. For instance, at the moment the unemployment rate among young people is about 30%. Economic difficulty, growing sense of uncertainty and deep and long-lasting dissatisfaction with the established political elites, of whatever color it is, might have been the underlying causes of the 5 Star Movement's success. 

For instance, in the immediate days after the 5 Star Movement's victory a lot of discussion has revolved around the proposed universal basic income, and how much this proposal boosted electoral consensus for the 5 Star Movement, particularly in those areas with the lowest GDP per capita. The last election highlighted a long-lasting divide between North and South: while the right-wing coalition including the League overwhelmingly won most Northern districts, the 5 Star Movement won most Southern districts. In the days following the election, several analyses found a relationship between the unemployment rate and GDP per capita and 5 Star Movement vote share across Italian provinces: those provinces with lower GDP per capita and higher unemployment rate voted overwhelmingly for the 5 Star Movement. 

I have heard observers on the political Left talk about populism and fascism as if they were the same thing. In Italy, are they?

It might be a bit of a stretch. None of the populist parties that have come out as the big winners of the March 4th election would probably question the foundations of our democratic regime - at least we hope so. At the same time there are some worrisome signs. 

For instance, both the League and the 5 Star Movement have significantly polarized the political discourse (which was already quite extreme in its tone), with their inflammatory anti-establishment rhetoric.

Moreover, because the 5 Star Movement has posed such a strong emphasis on "direct democracy" through the web, and on the complete rejection of the established political elites, it is easier to imagine that some of their practices could potentially endanger the foundations of our democratic system. One must hope that the 5 Star Movement's distrust of "professional politicians" will not also turn into a distrust of our political institutions. 

As far the League is concerned, their agenda is clearly xenophobic and nationalist. However, besides terrible rhetoric and very harmful policies, it is hard for now to see what they could do that would practically endanger democratic institutions. 

To what extent is Italian populism ideological? If it cuts across party lines, does populism mean that Italy needs a new political taxonomy?

There is a type of populism that is clearly right-wing: when Salvini talks about "sovereignty" and uses the slogan "Italians first" he is endorsing a right-wing interpretation of populism, very much in line with figures like Marine Le Pen. 

The 5 Star Movement is clearly populist in its appeal, although it is harder to classify the 5 Star Movement as either right-wing or left-wing. Their emphasis on big government and welfare, which is visible in policy proposals such as universal basic income, seems to fit in a left-wing agenda. However, at the same time the 5 Star Movement's populism is so fluid as to cut across right-wing or left-wing classifications. For instance, months ago Di Maio defined the NGOs operating in the Mediterranean sea as "taxi cabs" for migrants. This statement sparked a harsh debate, and moved the 5 Star Movement's immigration rhetoric clearly to the right of the political spectrum. 

Italy might not be in need of a new political taxonomy yet, as long as there are still parties clearly occupying the left-wing pole and right-wing pole of the political spectrum. Mattero Renzi's Partito Democratico, or PD, is clearly a moderate left-wing political party. However, if the League and the 5 Star Movement continue to rise in future years, and the PD continues losing votes, we might have to draw a new political taxonomy for Italy. 

The center-left appears to have majorities only in Emilia-Romagna and the urban centers of Milan, Florence, and a  bit of central Rome. Do the election results mean that the political Left is a spent force at the national level?

It is not spent yet, but it might be as close as ever to disappearing. Matteo Renzi's leadership has been met with a lot of resistance within the party, and with more factionalism. A few months before the March 4th election, several senior party members left the PD to form a new political party to the left of the PD, with very poor electoral results. The electoral loss has resulted in Renzi's resignation as party secretary, but if the PD does not find a way to win back votes, especially across Italy's Southern regions, from the 5 Star Movement, the party might be headed toward irrelevance. Under these conditions, the 5 Star Movement might probably take its place in future years.

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