Dr Case / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0
Dr Case / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The Italian populism paint it black

Teresa Pullano & Angelo Mastrandrea

After one year at the government, the Italian populist coalition composed by the 5 Stars Movement and the Lega Nord, the formula of Mediterranean populism has been reversed. On March 4, 2018, the 5 Stars Movement was the leading party, with 32% of the votes, and the Lega Nord was their coalition partner to form the government, with 17% of the preferences. On May 27, 2019, the Lega Nord secures 34% of the national preferences at the elections for the European Parliament, while the 5 Stars Movement is at 17.1% of the preferences. The Lega Nord affirms itself as the strongest sovranist party of the EU (with a country percentage of scores higher than the Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen in France). Salvini’s party is also the only ruling party that does not come out diminished in terms of popular consensus from the experience of government, even though it shares this with the Portuguese Socialist Party.

As a young man, Matteo Salvini defined himself as a communist from the Pianura Padana, and today appears in public as Italian Prime Minister while wearing the t-shirt of the neofascist movement CasaPound and likes to show up at the stadium mingling with the hooligans of the main Italian football clubs. Such a figure is now the charismatic leader of a party, the Lega Nord, that has undergone a deep transformation in the last ten years and under his leadership from a secessionist party, claiming the autonomy of Northern regions from Central and Southern Italy, to a political force affirming the primacy of the sovereignty of the Nation State over transnational authorities such as the European Union. Indeed, for the first time in its history, the Lega Nord has conquered the majority of votes in the Central and Southern regions of Italy, regions in which last year, in the occasion of the national political elections, the % Stars Movement was indisputably the first political actor.

At a symbolic level, the most surprising result is the one the Lega Nord obtained on the Island of Lampedusa. Situated southern of Sicily, this Italian island is now world-famous for the continuous arrival of undocumented migrants from North Africa. At the current EU elections, the Lega Nord scored 46% of preferences on the island of Lampedusa, and this is the highest score all over Italy. Also in the municipality of Riace, in the Southern region of Calabria, the Lega Nord is now the first party, with over 30% of the preferences: Riace is a town that is the symbol of left-wing policies of integration towards undocumented migrants. Salvini’s party (with 33.7% of the votes) won also in the former “Red” Emilia, so called since historically the Italian Communist Party and then the Democratic Party controlled the whole political and administrative system of the region.

The collapse of the other face of populism

While the success of the Lega Nord has a clear and openly declared ideological right-wing matrix, bordering also the far right and neofascist movements, the “other” face of Italian populism, represented by the 5 Stars Movement, so far declared itself of being neither left nor right. It appears as an evidence that the last ones distance from political partisanship did not benefit them, while the partisan choices of the Lega Nord did. After the results of the European elections became public, the first declaration of the 5 Stars Movement leader and vice-president of the Council of Ministers Luigi Di Maio has been: “We have failed on all levels”. Still, at the moment while we write, Di Maio did not put into question the alliance with the Lega Nord that sustains Italy’s current government. Matteo Salvini’s first declaration has also been that the government’s pact (they made a government’s written contract) will not change.

Nevertheless, it is very likely that the current balance of forces within the Italian government will not stay the same after this European elections. The Lega Nord will probably open to the post-fascist party led by Giorgia Meloni, Fratelli d’Italia (the former Alleanza Nazionale and also former Movimento Sociale Italiano, that is the direct heirs of the Italian Fascist Party of Benito Mussolini). It is not clear which kind of alliance, or not, Matteo Salvini will make with Forza Italia, the declining party of Berlusconi. Forza Italia got 8.8% of the preferences on May 26, and Berlusconi won again a seat as European MP after years of being kept away from parliamentary positions by his legal vicissitudes. The Lega Nord could now choose to ditch the 5 Stars Movements for an alliance with Fratelli d’Italia and Forza Italia, even more so since this same coalition already administers some Italian regions and municipalities.

Democratics only in the big cities

The Democratic Party (PD) has risen again beyond the symbolic limit of 20% of the preferences, stopping at 22% and going well beyond the 5 Stars Movement. Only one year ago, at the national political elections, the PD had 18.7% of the votes. The newly elected secretary general of the PD, Nicola Zingaretti, humbly declared: “This is not the point of arrival, it is a new start”, meaning that there is much to do to make socialist policies in Italy, inside and outside the Democratic Party, meaningful again.

All political commentators on the Italian media agree: the left-wing turn of the PD undertook by Zingaretti himself has been rewarded. In this sense, the difference with the mostly economically and politically center-left and Blairist stands of the former secretary, Matteo Renzi, is very clear. As we wrote in our previous text, Zingaretti has opened again the PD to an alliance with the CGIL, the main and left-leaning Italian trade union. With the European elections, the PD is the major party in all the main Italian cities, with 36% in Milano, 30.6% in Rome and 43.7% in Florence. Only in Naples, the 5 Stars Movement remains the first party, with 39.9%, and the PD is the second party with around 30% of the votes. This confirms the divide between the urban areas, were the middle class leans to the left, and the countryside, where the middle class votes for xenophobic and eurosceptic parties.

The failure of leftists and greens

The forces at the left of the Democratic Party, such as La Sinistra and the Green Party, had a very low score, with respectively 1.7% and 2.3%. This means that they did not reach the minimum level of 4% and they will not get any seats in the European Parliament. One aspect that can explain this defeat is the transfer of votes from the radical left to the PD, in the name of a “useful vote” and in a situation in which the PD shifts more to the left, thus appealing also to a more radical electorate. This result poses again the question of the unity of the left, as commented in its editorial of May 27 the editorial of the newspaper Il Manifesto. If sovranism and euroscepticism are clearly represented by the radical right in Italy, there seems to be no space and little visibility for critical positions towards the EU from a left-wing and pro-European perspective. Also, the green movement is not represented in Italy, at the difference of most of the other European countries. The radical left cannot find its own identity and is taken into the struggle against Salvini, best represented by the PD flag. The liberal movement “+Europa”, originated by the former Italian EU Commissioner Emma Bonino, opened to civil rights but liberal in economic terms, could also not reach the 4% limit and thus does not get any seat in the European Parliament. In any case, the whole of the political forces that compose the Italian center-left is at the minimum level of consensus ever in the history of the Republic.

Sovranism vs transnationalism, the new match

The European question, and the consensus or not over the project of integration, has profoundly altered the political spectrum in Italy. The right wing-left wing divide is sharpened by the no-Europe and pro-European one, making it impossible to think about center-left and center-right coalitions, as it has been the case in the years from the economic crisis on 2009 onwards in the country. Whereas the far-right, and its leader, Matteo Salvini, are positioned at the top of the eurosceptic movements in the EU, together with Victor Orban in Hungary and Marine Le Pen in France, the socialists and, especially, the Italian radical left have retrenched in the national space, where they nevertheless struggle to find any room for building alliances within and beyond Italy. Italy is now the European country leading the Eurosceptic and sovranist movement in Brussels and Strasbourg. The Italian far-left that, at the time of Rifondazione comunista, was an example of transnationally oriented and critically pro-European party in Europe, is now completely swiped away by the territorial anchorage of the Lega Nord as well as by the transnational alliances of this last one.

The question is now the one of the effects that this European elections will have over national politics: how will Matteo Salvini and his politics be transformed by becoming the leading Italian government party and the leading anti-EU force at the European Parliament? Will the moderate and especially economically liberal and thus pro-globalization forces within the Lega Nord, representing Northern Italy’s industry and capitalism, gain more space and convince Salvini to get into the Brussels’ game? Matteo Salvini just announced that he will renegotiate the 3% ratio between GDP and debt with the EU Commission and Central Bank. The way in which this will translate concretely will have consequences for the redefinition of European politics as well.