The Main Roots of Italian Populism – The End of Ideological Politics, Personalisation of Politics and Institutional Weakness

Flavio Chiapponi, Lecturer and Researcher at the University of Pavia

In the academic debate, many scholars point out that populism and democracy intertwine to the extent that the former follows the latter. Italy has proven to be a country where different populist parties and leaders have appealed to ‘the people’ and prevailed against mainstream political, social, economic, and cultural elites.


The many faces of Italian populism


Nowadays, the growing Italian populist party family is multifaceted. Among this group of parties, the Northern League (“Lega Nord”), led by Matteo Salvini, is an example of a classic right-wing populist party. This political party appears to gain support thanks to a quasi-charismatic leadership. It also takes an anti-immigration stance coupled with a strongly negative and aggressive attitude towards political and institutional elites.
On the other hand, the Five Star Movement (MoVimento 5 Stelle), led by the former comedian Beppe Grillo, demonstrates a different kind of populism: It fosters the direct appeal to the “people” and “common citizens” while rejecting the “caste” of professional politicians, regardless of their political orientation. The Five Star Movement’s unexpected success in the 2013 national election revealed that many Italian voters are prompt to support this new populist party, which exhibits innovative organisational strategies. The power within the party lies in the hands of a non-charismatic leadership, despite being deeply grounded on the personal qualities of its founder and despite of the fact that a significant share of its voters and party base had been supporters of the left-wing parties previously. Moreover, this party has shown an unprecedented capability to use the internet and in particular social networks in order to mobilise its followers.

Not only whole parties, but also single politicians such as Matteo Renzi can be described as populist

In addition to these two main populist parties, there are also single political leaders, who have been referred to as “populist”. Silvio Berlusconi, founder and president of Forward Italy (Forza Italia), who entered the political arena in 1994, is undoubtedly the most famous one. He joined politics after a flourishing career as a television tycoon in Italy and has led the Italian government several times since then. The Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, now leading the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico), also makes use of a rhetoric which is often considered “populist”, especially concerning his habit to divide the political discourse between “new” or “good” politics (i.e. his own) and “old” or “bad” one – the former meeting the political requirements needed by the “common people”, the latter only favouring greedy political and bureaucratic elites. In sum, it seems that the “populist currency” has definitively been established in the Italian political landscape. It has even proven to be quite effective, since main populist leaders and parties are on the rise in the polls.


Where did it come from? – The historic roots of populism in Italy


Populist tendencies turned out to be a permanent feature of Italian politics, especially since the “Second Republic” was proclaimed in 1994. Therefore, one can conclude that the success of Italian populism stems from structural characteristics. While we cannot attain a complete account of these factors, we can nonetheless try to indicate the main roots of populism in Italy. Following this path, we have to distinguish general and more specific causes.

Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, voters became more issue- and less ideology-oriented

It is impossible to understand the prospering of populism without taking into account the decline or even the end of ideological politics. In the First Republic, political competition was above all an ideological struggle, especially between the Christian Democratic Party (Democrazia Cristiana) and the Communist Party (Partito Comunista Italiano). As the largest Communist Party in Western Europe, the Italian Communist Party had to be taken seriously by their Christian Democratic competitors. At the ballot boxes, voters expressed their Weltanschauung and political identity, rather than merely electing a government coalition. However, it should be noted that since anti-system parties (e.g. the Communist Party and the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement) could not access the cabinet, competition was limited and an alternation of power almost impossible. Christian Democrats constantly controlled the government from 1948 until 1989, only changing their coalition partner. Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Italian voters started to behave in a different way: once the old political (and ideological) identities had resolved – at least at mass-scale – they became more issue-oriented.

The Second Republic’s increasing volatility reveals a further development of this trend

In this context, it seems to be of little surprise that the Northern League achieved its first successes in 1990 (regional election in Lombardy) and 1992 (national election). Taking advantage of tarnished ideological politics, as well as the political legitimacy crisis stemming from the national scandal of “Tangentopoli”[1], League’s leader Umberto Bossi succeeded in exploiting the political discontent shared by many Italians. His party won 8,65% at the election to the Chamber of Deputies in 1992. This happened by advocating a populist manifesto, similar to the ones of Scandinavian populist parties – which included promoting a rather conservative welfare state and public bureaucracy, decreasing taxes, an anti-immigration stance, and finally, the vehement opposition against increased public spending in Southern Italy. In the Second Republic, those dynamics only developed further, as the increasing volatility of electoral rates certify: in 2013, for example, the index of volatility reached the incredible value of 39.1 (the index ranges between 0 and 100) – with a highly volatile election scoring above 20.

The increasing personalisation of politics paved the way for populist success

The second general cause is growing political personalisation, which means that politics and political competition in Italy have increasingly become a struggle between leaders instead of political parties or doctrines. Obviously, this is a very dominant trend, particularly in the United States but also in Europe: nevertheless, the effects are more impressive in the Italian Second Republic, due to its particular origin. As mainstream and historical parties were investigated against during the “Mani Pulite” (“clean hands”) case in 1992-1994[2], disoriented voters were attracted by strong political leaderships. Since populism gives a clear priority to the immediate link and interaction between leader and followers, it is plausible that the increasing personalisation of Italian politics paved the way for populist success. This was illustrated by Berlusconi’s victory in the 1994 election. And still, the appeal of populist political leaders does not seem to lessen, as the triumph of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in the last national election demonstrates.


Weak political institutions encouraging populism


A country specific reason partly explaining populist success in Italy is institutional weakness. This ‘weakness’ can be defined in three ways.

As Italians accepted democracy by displaying loyalty to political organisations, corruption scandals delegitimised democracy

Firstly, Italian political institutions are weak because democratic consolidation was achieved by concentrating political power in mass parties after World War II (above all, Christian Democrats, Socialists and Communists). These parties became the main “anchors” of the new regime’s democratic legitimacy. Consequently, Italians accepted democracy not by enthusiastically welcoming the First Republic, but by displaying loyalty to political organisations. Hence, the national scandal of “Mani Pulite”, stemming from widespread political corruption, damaged not only political parties, but turned into a crisis of democratic legitimacy.

Public opinion tends to welcome messages that highlight the image of a corrupted and self-interested political class

Secondly, the birth of the Second Republic did not prove to be more effective from an institutional point of view. Its most dominant flaw lies in the scarce autonomy of politics, especially of the judiciary. Owing to the circumstances under which the First Republic collapsed, Italian public opinion has proven to be systematically prompt to welcome messages that highlight the image of a corrupted and self-interested political class, as well as to approve of any judicial enquiry aiming to reveal corruption. This widespread way of thinking clearly sustained populist success.

Finally, the lack of governmental elites’ electoral legitimisation also contributes to the growing success of populist parties

Finally, the Italian government is weak because it frequently lacks direct electoral legitimacy. Since 1994, only five out of sixteen national governments have received a majority in the general elections justifying the building of a coalition. The lack of electoral legitimisation of governmental elites fosters the resentment of Italian citizens and thereby contributes to the growing success of populist parties. This was the case when Berlusconi’s party and Northern League won the national election in 1994, following a non-partisan government led by former chief of Italian National Bank, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. A similar situation occurred in 2013, when the Five Star Movement achieved its unexpected victory and followed the government headed by the technocratic leader Mario Monti, former professor of Economics. Neither Ciampi nor Monti won a national election in order to lead the government. They were appointed by the National Presidency, without any kind of direct legitimation by the voters.

Populist parties and leaders are likely to remain a stable component of Italian politics

Considering future tendencies of populism in the Italian political system, it seems that populist parties and leaders will remain a stable component. The causes that foster institutional weakness, as explained above, will not be corrected soon. Similarly, the historic roots of populist tradition in Italian politics will continue to influence the variety of populist tendencies in the future.

[1] Tangentopoli: A term used by the Italian press in the early 1990s for the city of Milan, where the then district attorney Antonio Di Pietro disclosed systematic corruption, abuse of office, and illegal party financing. The word Tangentopoli then became a synonym for criminal structures of the First Republic’s political system.

[2] Mani Pulite: A nationwide judicial investigation into political corruption.