Italy: populists and populism

A week since my last report on Italy, it’s still hard to get a definitive set of results. The official interior ministry site still lists ten seats undecided (all in Latium/Lazio; none of them look particularly close), and more importantly it doesn’t break down the single-member seats between the different parties in the centre-left and centre-right coalitions. So I’m following the allocation on the Italian-language Wikipedia, which gives us the following totals:

Lower house: hard right 155, Berlusconi right 110, Five Star Movement 227, centre-left 136, two independents.

Senate: hard right 74, Berlusconi right 63, Five Star Movement 112, centre-left 64, two independents.

In each case, no majority can be formed without the Five Stars unless all the other forces combine, which seems unlikely in the extreme. Silvio Berlusconi, having been outvoted by the League, is sticking by his commitment to support its leader, Matteo Salvini, for prime minister. But unless the centre-left is willing to hand the country to the neo-fascists, Salvini can only succeed if the Five Stars support him.

And why would they? The common answer is that they are both populists, so that makes it necessary to make some effort to unpack what that means.

The leading modern definition was offered a decade ago by Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell: “an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.” (Twenty-First Century Populism, 2008: Palgrave MacMillan, p. 3.)

This isn’t a bad definition, but it’s difficult to operationalise. While it certainly seems to fit the League and the Five Star Movement, it also applies to some extent to the large majority of political parties today. In varying degrees and with suitable adjustments to the identity of the “people” and the “others”, it describes the common currency of modern politics.

At best, “populism” in this general sense works as a term for a particular tendency or strategy within parties. To get a useful category, something comparable with the likes of “liberal”, “centre-right”, “far left”, and so on, we need to add other elements. I suggest that a distinctively populist party – rather than one that just has populism as part of its makeup – at least needs to incorporate such things as a deliberate rejection of ideological categories, a valorisation of naivety or inexperience and a lack of roots in the established party system.

The Five Stars meet that test; the League and the other components of the (somewhat misnamed) centre-right do not. They play an established political part and occupy a place on a conventional spectrum. They use populism, but their populism does not define them.

So how does this help in working out what might happen in Italy? As I’ve said before, the Five Stars are the ones who have the momentous choice to make. If what matters to them is “populism”, unmoored from ideology, then a deal with the League makes sense – perhaps even on terms that might satisfy the ego of its Trumpist leader Matteo Salvini.

But if the Five Stars look instead at the interests of the people they represent and at what they’re trying to achieve, that’s much less clear. Their support comes overwhelmingly from the poorer south of the country: just the areas that the League (historically the Northern League) would like to cut loose. And their themes of democratisation, citizen empowerment and opposition to corruption are never going to be popular on the right – especially not when the right still has to make room for Berlusconi.

A deal with the centre-left, on the other hand, would make much more political sense. The Democratic Party has been so badly weakened that it would not pose a threat; it could provide the numbers for Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio to become prime minister, in return for some sort of agreed reformist program.

Clearly some members of the centre-left see the way forward. Michele Emiliano, who came third in last year’s leadership election, said (as quoted by Politico) “We need to give our support to a government headed by the 5Stars, who after this victory have the right to govern. And we need to exercise a controlling function on their platform — otherwise they’ll team up with the right.”

But outgoing leader Matteo Renzi (whose resignation will not take effect until the party’s next convention) is set against any alliance with either the Five Stars or the right. Which, if adhered to, can only result in driving them into each other’s arms, with possibly disastrous consequences.

Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, is due to begin consultations next week to try to craft a new government. On past experience it will be a leisurely process, and this time, at least, that’s probably just as well – it may take a while for the parties to discover some realism.


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