Over the past two decades, Italy has been one of the strongest and most enduring markets for populist parties in Western Europe. While in other European countries the rise or the emergence of populism is a recent development or has occurred only occasionally, it is a persistent feature of Italian politics. In the sixteen years since 2001, Italy has had populist governments for roughly half of this period (eight and a half years) if one counts the three governments led by Silvio Berlusconi that were in power from 2001 until 2005, 2005 to 2006, and 2008 to 2011. Furthermore, in the last Italian general election in 2013, populist parties (People of Freedom/Forza Italia, Lega Nord, and the Five Star Movement) gained over 50% of the vote.
Interestingly, if one looks closely enough, they can identify some
common patterns characterising the emergence of populist parties in
Italy. In the early 1990s, the rise of Forza Italia (FI) and the Lega
Nord (LN – Northern League) was closely tied to political and economic
crises. In a similar fashion, since 2008 a new period of economic and
political crisis has coincided with the ascent of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement.
Italy thus offers a useful case study for assessing the consequences
that are implied by a continuous and strong populist presence in
national politics. If we look across these years as a whole, the Italian
experience highlights four particular threats to democracy that can
emerge from this populist presence.
First, there have been implications for the checks and balances that
exist within the Italian political system. Populist parties have
repeatedly attacked the work of judges, notably in the case of Silvio
Berlusconi. They have also had a sizeable impact on the role of the
media in Italian politics. This is true both of Berlusconi’s Forza
Italia and the Five Star Movement, who have both posed a threat to the
freedom and autonomy of media organisations.
Second, there has been a general oversimplification of political
discourse in Italy. The debate about the cost of politics is a good
example. Initially introduced by the Northern League and Forza Italia in
the 1990s, complaints over the cost of politics have also become one of
the most successful topics for Beppe Grillo to mobilise support around.
Yet despite the presence of this debate for two decades in Italian
politics, the political attention it has received has failed to produce
significant savings (as shown, for instance, by several expensive and
incomplete attempts to abolish provincial councils).
There is cross-party consensus among the main political parties on the
need to reduce the number of MPs. This implies a certain reduction of
political representation, while the reduction in terms of the cost of
politics is rather uncertain.
Third, Italy has experienced the spread of populist themes and frames
even among non-populist parties. In the last few years, the success of
populist campaigning among citizens has pushed even mainstream parties
to react using populist rhetoric, styles and sometimes also populist
content of their own. An example would be a much-shared Facebook post
produced by Matteo Renzi on migration, which stated that ‘we need to
free ourselves from a sense of guilt. We do not have the moral duty to
welcome into Italy people who are worse off than ourselves’.
Finally, Italian populism illustrates the so called ‘cultivation theory’. To paraphrase George Gerbner
and his colleagues, instead of ‘growing up with television’ we might
address the issue of ‘growing up with populism’. Italy is now
characterised by general discontent among citizens and strong political
disaffection. The country is not an exception in this respect among
Southern European countries and, obviously, the blame for this situation
cannot be attributed solely to populist parties. Nevertheless, it is
worth noting that, at least in part, the success of populist parties is
achieved through the de-legitimisation of politics, institutions, and
the ruling class, and that it produces a vicious circle fuelling
citizens’ distrust and dissatisfaction.
Although populist parties can pose threats of this nature to
democracy, usually their leaders are also political entrepreneurs that
build off several problems not adequately addressed by mainstream
parties. Their successes, indeed, rely on the ineffectiveness of
governments to take seriously the problems identified by populist
parties, such as political corruption, inefficient use of public money,
the integration of migrants, and the demands of those who are excluded
from the benefits of the globalisation process. Finding viable solutions
to these issues is the obligatory path for Italian politics to follow
if it is to reduce the growing gap that separates it from Italian
First published by LSE Europp blog
About Giuliano Bobba