Interview #24 Italy: a populist paradise

albertazzi-daniele-squareIn this interview, professor Daniele Albertazzi explains the success of populist parties in Italy. The 4th of March, two populist parties – Five Star Movement and Lega – obtained their best results ever, and they are likely to form the next government. What is going to happen next? How is it possible that two populist parties collect almost half of the vote share? What can Europe learn from the Italian elections?

Daniele Albertazzi is Senior Lecturer in European Politics and Postgraduate Research Director at the Department of Politics and International Studies of the University of Birmingham (POLSIS). He has published widely on European politics in international journals such as West European Politics, Party Politics and Government & Opposition. Daniele is the co-editor (with Duncan McDonnell) of Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy (Palgrave, 2007) and the co-author (with Duncan McDonnell) of Populists in Power (Routledge, 2015). He co-convenes the Italian Politics Specialist group of the Political Studies Association with Arianna Giovannini.

POP) Usually, everybody claims to be the winner after an election. This time, one party can just admit the defeat and wave the white flag: the Democratic Party (PD). What are the main reasons behind the collapse of the mainstream left in Italy? Is it Renzi’s personalistic style or the general decline of social democracy in Europe? Or is it the irresistible populist component of the Five Star Movement’s political message?

Daniele Albertazzi) It is unfair to say that it is all Renzi’s fault, although he is responsible for the magnitude of the defeat. I suspect he has added a further 3 to 4% to the drop in PD support. His biggest mistake was to turn the constitutional referendum of 2016 into a vote about himself. However, I see the defeat of the PD as part of a longer process that has been going since the end of WWII. Already by the 1950s, the left was unable to choose between revolution and reform, while in contemporary times, they are clearly not revolutionary, but they cannot decide whether they are social democrats or liberals, which are two different political traditions. The PD is yet to make a decision on this issue.

This led to a situation in which the centre-left had no identity and could only represent the bourgeois and wealthy parts of the country. In other words, they represented the so-called “winners of globalization”; people who are doing rather well or who have the skills and education that make them think that they are able to do well now, or in the near future. This is a fundamental problem, and it is not just a problem for the PD but for the centre-left across Europe. They only represent liberals who enjoy this idea of an open society, not necessarily the kind of people that the left traditionally represented.  In this sense, I do not think it is all Renzi’s fault. He probably made it worse, but the PD and the centre-left all over Europe have to ask themselves many questions, or they will be wiped out.

POP) One of the effects of the crisis of social democracy is the success of left-wing populist parties. Potere al Popolo (“Power to the People”) seemed to represent the first experiment of a truly left-wing populist party in Italy, but it attracted only 1.1% of the vote share and gained no seats. Why there are no truly left-wing populist parties (such as Syriza and Podemos) in Italy, or leaders like Jeremy Corbyn?

DA) That space has been occupied very effectively by the Five Star Movement (5SM). Then of course, we can discuss to what extent the 5SM is actually left-wing, but the fact remains that a large number of people consider them as an effective vehicle for their frustration. This frustration has a lot to do with economic issues, and this is clear by looking at the geography of the vote. We have two parties representing the losers of globalization now. To simplify, the Five Star Movement represents the economic losers, while Salvini’s Lega represents the cultural losers. I would be surprised to see left-wing populism inserting itself in such a crowded market. There are already many populists, and the Five Star Movement is clearly attracting many people coming from the left, we can see that by observing the data on the last vote.

POP) Some international media present Ital-exit as a real possibility: why do you think that Italy will never drop the Euro or the European Union? How relevant was this topic in the past electoral campaign?

DA) I have never said “never” as I do not possess a crystal ball, but certainly not in the foreseeable future. The international media need to sell copies or make sure people click on their articles online. When you are contacted by the international media, the first question is always about the neo/postfascists in government, although they were in power already in 1994 as part of the first coalition led by Berlusconi, so this is not a novelty. They find this very confusing, because they would like you to say that this phenomenon is completely new and that fascism has suddenly re-emerged in Italy after 70 years. People identifying – to various degrees – with the Fascist/Post-Fascist tradition never went anywhere in Italy, that is the point.

In the same vein, the media need to say that this is the end of the EU: this is the narrative that sells. I cannot predict the future, but I would be very surprised if Di Maio or Salvini, once in power, focus primarily on picking a fight with the EU. I think the EU is a strawman they are using to attract support, because many people in Italy are very unhappy with the EU and the Euro, but I would expect a future government led by one of them to focus on domestic issues.

POP) How do you explain the change of position on the Euro within the Five Star Movement and the Lega? Did they simply change their mind based on surveys or did they understand how unrealistic that project was?

DA) In an interview with La Repubblica published in 2005, the Lega’s leader Roberto Maroni was already talking about the idea of Italy dropping the Euro (see tweet below). This is not a new game. Umberto Bossi played the same game when he was the Lega’s leader, of course. We conducted an analysis on the Lega’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, and those of its new leader, Matteo Salvini, and the EU is clearly not the main theme on which they focus. Immigration and law and order are much more important. What is new is Brexit, and this makes everything more complicated because some threats are now taken more seriously by the EU, and by the media. Salvini has attacked the EU, but to change the treaties of modify the rules concerning the deficit of member states is a different matter. To achieve something like that you need at least ten years and you need to build alliances. It is a long process requiring many skills. They prefer to engage in symbolic policies in order to be perceived as addressing issues that people care about.

According to the Treaties, to leave the Euro you need to leave the EU. Italy is still the second largest manufacturing power in the EU, and most of its export goes to the rest of the EU, so I don’t believe that deep down Salvini and Di Maio really want to challenge the EU or re-introduce the Lira.

POP) The Five Star Movement has become a catch-all party: the unemployed, factory workers, office workers, housewives, students, and graduates, they all voted for a populist party claiming to be neither right-wing nor left-wing. How do you explain this widespread success among so many different categories of voters?

The Five Star Movement, as well as the Lega, is successful because the new political cleavage is about “open” vs. “closed”, “winners” vs. and “losers” of globalization, those who feel they have been left behind and those who feel they are doing OK. The psychological dimension here is important, too. Some are not real winners or losers, but they think they are. The answer to the question “do you think things will improve or get worse in the next few years?” allows you to make a good guess about whether someone will vote for Salvini or not. Similarly, the reason why 5SM is so good in attracting votes is that they focus on this new cleavage, and importantly they only have been in opposition. Once in power it will be more difficult for them to survive, because their constituencies are so heterogeneous in terms of social classes, and so widespread from north to south, that it will be very challenging for them not to lose support. However, for the moment they have only governed at the local level, which is quite different. Moreover, volatility is very high and this means that some of the votes that 5SM got this time around may well go to someone else at the next election.

POP) In particular, in the south the 5 Star Movement has attracted many votes, about 50% in some areas. Is the promise of a basic income enough to explain this phenomenon? Are there other, deeper reasons?


DA) The south has been abandoned for 150 years, and since Christian Democracy disappeared, nobody has been able to play the role of the mediator between local hopes and the central government. The Democratic Party has been perceived as a failing party of government that has not delivered on its promises, because the GDP per capita is still lower than 15 years ago, unemployment (especially among young people) is impossibly high, and the situation for southern women in the labour market is even worse than for the men. Therefore, I do not believe that the success of the 5SM in the south is only due to the promise of a basic income, which certainly appeals to people who struggle to survive. It is rather the promise of a completely new beginning. In addition, the 5SM’s discourse about corruption sounds very attractive even in the north, why should not it sound attractive in the South where decade after decade people have seen politicians working alongside the Mafia. Why wouldn’t you want to signal that you are ready for radical change?

POP) The Lega dropped “Nord” from its name, thus expanding and becoming a truly national party not only confined to the (rich) North of the country. Do you think this move was essential in granting Salvini’s party an unprecedented electoral success or are there more structural reasons for this?

DA) In a proportional system an increase of 5% in the South is in itself a remarkable result. As for their increasing success in Central Italy (what were, once upon a time, the “red regions”) the Lega was already growing here when Bossi was its leader (that is, since 2010). Now, under Salvini, the Lega is neck and neck with the PD – 20% versus 25-26%. That is a revolution because it means that at the next elections it might be able to even overcome the PD here.

In the South, a 5% increase is a success: it adds to your tally of MPs and Senators, but it also proves you are on the right track. Let’s not forget that Bossi tried to fight a couple of elections by fielding candidates with a “Lega-Sud” and “Lega-Centro”, but it never really worked. Now Salvini’s challenge is to keep the Lega together with the Lega Nord, so to say, because the Lega Nord still exists, of course, and many people in the deep North want the Lega to be that kind of party, and to defend their interests. On the other hand, Salvini’s Lega has to consider the interests of Central and Southern Italy now if it wants to keep growing in these areas. That is also a reason why it is challenging for Salvini to govern with the Five Star Movement: he would have to find some kind of balance between addressing the interests of these different macro areas, which is difficult. Now I expect governors, regional leaders, and old activists to just shut up and let him do as he pleases because a success like that is unseen in the history of the Lega, so I think he is safe for the moment. However, if things start going badly in the future, these people will become much more vocal.

POP) You have been studying populist actors in power for a long time now. Given the experience at the local level in Rome and Turin, how do you expect the Five Star Movement to perform in case they could form a government? Some commentators fear their approach to international relations given their scarce diplomacy and inflammatory communication style.

populists in power_albDA) Di Maio has already signalled his intentions when he announced his governing team. He believes in the need for the Five Star Movement to institutionalize and to become a governmental party. Indeed, he has not picked any “Beppe Grillos” as would-be ministers, and the way he talks, the way he behaves, sends the same message. Three weeks before the elections, he even went to the City of London to reassure the international financial markets about his intentions.

I wouldn’t expect him to pick real fights with the EU, as I have said. Anyway, if you look at the governments of the so-called “Second Republic” (since 1992), there really isn’t much difference between Berlusconi and Prodi in the relationship with the EU. The discourse changed, Berlusconi sometimes sounded critical of the Euro to divert attention from his own economic failings, but the substance never changed much. This is what we would see with Di Maio, I think.

POP) Last but not least: Silvio Berlusconi. Many commentators spoke of a “comeback” of the former Cavaliere. However, in Italy many reacted by saying that Berlusconi “never went anywhere”. As to confirm this claim, the leader of Forza Italia declared to be the real play-maker of the right-wing coalition after the elections (by the way, the trailer below is about a new movie about Silvio Berlusconi, directed by Paolo Sorrentino). Do you think his days of almost absolute power are long gone, or rather never passed?

DA) I do not think Berlusconi ever enjoyed “absolute power” as PM – party leaders are what really matter in Italy, and Berlusconi was always the head of coalitions. The narrative of the “return” of Berlusconi works because non-experts think he had disappeared, while in reality we know that he just kept quiet for a while, but was still the leader, and owner, of his own party: Forza Italia. Duncan McDonnell and I have assessed his performance in government in our book Populists in Power, and the data show that he failed to deliver improvements to the Italian economy, let alone the promised “new economic miracle”. If you were a conservative voter, why would you vote for Berlusconi again? In fact, many people have come to the same conclusion, as we have seen at this election.

Berlusconi never went away, but also never had absolute power. If we look at the history of his governments, there were many internal fractures and they achieved very little, apart from passing legislation to protect Berlusconi himself. Berlusconi has been relatively influential; however, his great idea was to be the glue between different parties within the right. Berlusconi can now aspire to have an influence on the right-wing coalition, but there is no doubt that the dominant player on the right is Salvini now.

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