The Main Roots of Italian Populism

Flavio Chiapponi, University of Pavia

Populism in Italy has not just emerged during the past few years, but has a long-standing tradition in the Italian political space. This article aims to outline contemporary facets of populism in Italian politics. The root causes of populism shall be examined via an analysis of the country’s specific history and by taking the particular role of institutions into consideration.

The End of Ideological Politics: Personalisation of Politics and Institutional Weaknesses

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 have 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.

The Five Star Movement (MoVimento 5 Stelle), led by the former comedian Beppe Grillo, is of a different kind of populism: It is constituted by its alleged 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 inclined to support this new populist party, which also exhibits innovative organisational strategies. The power within the party lies in the hands of a non-charismatic leadership, despite being deeply grounded in the personal qualities of its founder and despite of the fact that a significant share of its voters and party base had previously been supporters of the left-wing parties. Moreover, this party has shown an unprecedented capability to use the internet and, in particular, social networks 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 (now former) prime minister Matteo Renzi, who is still leading the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico), also makes use of a rhetoric which is often considered “populist”. One striking example is his distinction between “new” or “good” politics (i.e. his own) and “old” or “bad” politics – the former meeting the political requirements needed by the “common people”, the latter only favouring greedy political and bureaucratic elites.

It does even seem like that the “populist currency” has been established in the Italian political landscape. And it has proven to be effective, as still 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 may suspect that the success of Italian populism stems from structural characteristics. While it is of course not possible to provide a complete account of these factors, we can nonetheless try to indicate the main roots of populism in Italy.

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 (perhaps even 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 a change of the power-holders 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 a 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 (at the regional election in Lombardy) and 1992 (at the national election). Taking advantage of tarnished ideological politics, as well as the political legitimacy crisis stemming from the national corruption scandal of “Tangentopoli”, the 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 a vehement opposition against increased public spending in Southern Italy. In the Second Republic, those dynamics 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 from 0 to 100) – with a highly volatile election scoring above 20.

The increasing personalisation of politics paved the way for populist success

Another general cause for the rise of populism was growing political personalisation: 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 being investigated against during the “Mani Pulite” (“clean hands”) corruption case in 1992-1994, 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 seems plausible that the increasing personalisation of Italian politics paved the way for populist successes. One early example would be Berlusconi’s victory in the 1994 election. And 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, which partly explains the populist success in Italy, are institutional weaknesses. These can be defined in three ways.

First, Italian political institutions are weak because after World War II, democratic consolidation was achieved by concentrating political power in mass parties (above all, the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, and the 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

Second, the birth of the Second Republic did not prove to be any more effective from an institutional point of view. Its most crucial flaw lies in the scarce autonomy of politics, especially in relation to 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 successes.

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

Third, Italian governments tend to be weak because they frequently lack direct electoral legitimacy. Since 1994, only five out of sixteen national governments have received a majority of votes in the general election. 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 the Northern League won the national election in 1994, following a non-partisan government led by the former chief of the Italian National Bank, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. A similar situation occurred in 2013, when the Five Star Movement achieved its first unexpected victory against the background of a government headed by the technocratic leader Mario Monti. Neither Ciampi nor Monti won a national election. They were appointed by the President without any kind of direct legitimation by the voters.

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

Considering possible future tendencies of populism in the Italian political system, it must be expected that populist parties and leaders will remain an enduring component. The causes that foster institutional weaknesses, as explained above, will not vanish soon. Similarly, the historic roots of the populist tradition in Italian politics will continue to fuel a variety of populist tendencies in the future.

Flavio Chiapponi is Assistant Professor at the University of Pavia.