Italy's Anti-Establishment Movement

 /  Jan. 14, 2018, 7:38 p.m.

Italian Parliament

The 1992 arrest of Mario Chiesa, and the ensuing mani pulite—an investigation into political corruption—brought the largest restructuring of Italian politics in the second half of the twentieth century. Before mani pulite, several political parties had dominated: the Christian Democrats (DC), the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), and the Italian Community Party (PCI). During the investigation, these parties simply disappeared, with their leaders arrested on corruption charges. Out of this power vacuum rose two parties—Lega Nord (Northern League) and Movimento 5 Stelle (5 Star Movement). These two populist parties exploited political instability and extant government distrust, and, given the realities of modern Europe, will be able to continue gaining influence and power in Italy.

Lega Nord was created as a rejection of the Italian political realm in 1991. Current Lega Nord leader, Umberto Bossi, has campaigned for the secession of northern Italy, encouraging citizens to vote to be the “masters of their own homes.” Movimento 5 Stelle, the younger of the two parties, was officially formed in 2009, based on the ideology of a blog run by Beppe Grillo. Grillo is a comedian turned politician whose critiques focus on the political power of corporations, environmental degradation, and the Euro. He uses the blog in addition to social media and in-person meetups to communicate with his constituents. His mission targets disgruntled voters from traditional parties who feel excluded and disillusioned by Italian politics. Although Movimento 5 Stelle and Lega Nord support different visions for the future of Italian politics, they remain fundamentally connected as populist parties.

Unlike other European countries where the rise of right-wing populism is seen as a recent phenomenon, Italy has experienced three right-wing populist governments since 2001, under former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In the most recent 2013 Italian general election, for example, the Movimento 5 Stelle and the center-right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi collectively won over 50 percent of the popular vote, though the Movimento 5 Stelle refused to form part of a coalition. With a dissolved Parliament as of December 28, political parties in Italy have their eyes set on the general election due to be held on March 4, 2018. Right-wing parties could make gains in the election, due to the recent fragmentation of the left, economic woes, and increased migration.

The newly launched left-wing political alliance Free and Equal is threatening to fracture the left-wing vote in the upcoming general election. It unifies three parties: the Democratic and Progressive movement, Italian Left, and Possible, siphoning off votes from the mainstream center-left Democratic Party. Matteo Renzi, the leader of the Democratic Party, is still plagued by his failed constitutional reform in the 2016 referendum, after which he resigned the premiership.

Italy’s troubling economy is a more long-term cause of the surge of right wing populism. One of Italy’s largest banks, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (BMPS), nearly collapsed in 2017 and had to be bailed out by the government. Further, Italy’s national debt is around 135 percent of its GDP, the second highest in the Eurozone, making the country vulnerable to potential interest rate raises by the European Central Bank. As a result, citizens turn to Eurosceptic political parties like Lega Nord, which propose Italy’s exit from the Eurozone. This is not a new phenomenon, however: surges in support for Italian right-wing populist parties often coincide with economic and political crises, most notably in the rise of Lega Nord and Forza Italia in the early 1990s, along with the rise of the Movimento 5 Stelle in 2008.

In the past three years, over five hundred thousand migrants from North Africa have landed in Italy, fleeing persecution and seeking a better life. Further, in 2016, the European Union reached an agreement with Turkey bolstering the intake of Syrian refugees in Turkey by EU member states. As a result, the central Mediterranean crossing from Libya to Italy has become the main path to Europe for migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East, drastically increasing the migration rate into Italy. Italian officials became frustrated by the ways European Union countries have distributed the burden of accommodating migrants and refugees. Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni addressed the situation by stating, “The message is that of a country that is not breaking the rules, but is coming under pressure and is asking for a concrete contribution from its European counterparts.” Parties that emphasize their anti-immigration stances, such as the Northern League and Forza Italia, have seen their vote shares jump; the previously pro-secessionist Northern League party, for example, now has the support of 15 percent of the general Italian populace versus 4 percent in 2013. This has translated to gains in elections as well; in Cascina, a traditionally left-leaning constituency, a Northern League mayoral candidate was narrowly elected and in Sicily, a right wing anti-immigration gubernatorial candidate won with 39 percent percent of the vote.

Although both left and right-wing politicians criticized the Movimento 5 Stelle’s anti-immigration shift  as clear-cut catering to polls, politicians who have failed to take a harsh stance on the issue have suffered. For example, Giusi Nicolini, the pro-immigrant mayor of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, failed to even quality for the run-off in her reelection campaign. Therefore, rather than encourage immigration, the EU’s policy has resulted in resentment in Italy. Furthermore, the success of populist parties such as the Five Star Movement, which has benefited in elections as a result of Italian resentment toward the EU, is in many ways the result of these policy changes.

Luigi Di Maio is the leader of the anti-establishment Movimento 5 Stelle, which is leading in polls for this year’s general election. According to Di Maio, “The movement was born out of the failure of both parties on the left and right,” more specifically because they do not “defend the values and interests of different parts of the country.” Di Maio tries to preach with a careful moderate rhetoric. “We have no intention of isolating Italy. We have no intention of exalting nationalistic sentiments,” Di Maio said, referring to parties on the far right in Europe. Unlike similar movements across Europe, Di Maio, “rejects absolutely the characterization of being called a 'populist' movement,” insisting that it is a serious party aimed at reforming the European Union, which he views as robbing European nations of their sovereignty.

Compared to his predecessor, Peppe Grillo, who is famous for raucous tirades against the ruling elite, Di Maio has succeeded in presenting a more moderate image. His policies prioritize universal income support, cuts to wasteful public spending, and increased forms of direct democracy. Although the party supports many progressive causes like same-sex marriage, environmentalism and social justice, Di Maio himself represents the more conservative wing of the party and has positioned himself as a law-and-order candidate who wants tighter regulation on immigration. He, however, adopts a conventional anti-immigration stance toward the refugees: “We do not believe in physical walls, but we also do not believe in the invisible walls that do exist.”

Berlusconi’s coalition, led by Forza Italia and the Northern League, represents the future for right-wing populism in Italy; much of their influence will be derived not from their own electoral success but from their influence in pushing mainstream conservatives—who form part of their coalition—to the right. This development is reflected in the recent victory of the center-right coalition, composed of Forza Italia, the Northern League, and the small Brothers of Italy, in the recent Sicilian election.

It is clear that the issue that will animate Italian populism for the foreseeable future is immigration. Two of the parties comprising the coalition, the Northern League and the Brothers of Italy, have found considerable success in framing the migrants from the Middle East and Africa as representing the ‘other,’ a group that has no place in Italy. This technique allows them to portray their opponents as willing to place the interest of foreigners above those of the Italian people; this line of reasoning has been especially effective in wooing those in communities that have faced an influx in migration. So long as European leaders fail to adequately address the migrant crisis, it is clear that the populist right will continue to utilize immigration as a means of gaining influence.  

EUChicago is the University of Chicago’s chapter of the transatlantic think tank, European Horizons. This article was written by the organization’s Liberal Order cohort, the members of which include: Gabriel Broshy, Michael Tolchinsky, Firouz Niazi, Tony Shen, Anvita Ramachandran, Nicholas Chung, Sydney Lupo, Kevin Peterson, Justin Skobe, Beatrice Del Negro, Swayam Sinha, Russell Xu, and Isabella Jackson-Saitz. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

EUChicago Research Team


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