Concerns about democratic backsliding are especially pertinent when considering the recent Parliamentary election in Italy. Democratic backsliding is defined as a “decline in the quality of democracy in democratic regimes or in democratic qualities of governance in autocracies” (Lust). The rise in prominence of the Populist and Far Right movements pose the threat of democratic backsliding in Italy in that both of these movements are likely to increase corruption and affect civil society in a way that threatens the representative and fair nature of pure democracy.
The currently recorded success of Far Right and Populist movements in Italy are clear causes of concern for the continued perseverance of democracy. According to an article written for the New York Times by Jason Horowitz, who is the Rome bureau chief for the Times, the parties that seem to have received a large amount of the popular vote are similar in that they share “varying degrees of skepticism toward the European Union, agitation to abandon the euro and promises to put Italy before Europe” (Horowitz). He states that the likely result of this will be “a government in Italy that is significantly less invested in the project of a united Europe” (Horowitz).
Populist leaders and leaders of either Far Right or Far Left movements are often dangerous for democracy because they are more likely to transition to leading in an authoritarian fashion. This will in turn diminish the power of the government to form and enact policies that the leader does not approve of and the overall representativeness of government. For example, as Müller states in his article about Populism, Populists try to cut out middlemen as much as possible in order to form a stronger and more direct bond with the people that does not require party organizations as intermediates. He also notes that one of the core claims of Populism is that “only some of the people are the real people” and that only the Populist “authentically identifies and represents this real and true people” (Müller).
Another issue with these essential authoritarians is that when they claim power, they create what Scheppele refers to as “Frankenstates”. Scheppele defines “Frankenstates” as “abusive forms of rule” that are “created by combining the bits and pieces of perfectly reasonable democratic institutions” (Scheppele). Therefore, it is very difficult for international actors to determine whether or not these states are truly breaching the regulations of democracy. International actors will continue to provide aid because they either have secondary interests that cause them to not care about the democratic backsliding that is occurring or they do not have the necessary information available that would cause them to recognize that they should revoke aid.
This is why the party that won the majority of the votes in the recent election being the Five Star Movement party, which is a web-based, populist party, is concerning for democracy (Horowitz). The party won approximately a third of the votes that were cast and is led by Luigi Di Maio (Horowitz). The projections for the votes also showed large increases for the Far Right party called League, which is run by Matteo Salvini (Horowitz). League received about 18% of the votes, according to preliminary results (Horowitz). If these leaders are able to rise in power, they will likely propose policies that reject democracy and curtail the civil liberties of those who oppose them, as can be witnessed through their platforms that they are running on and that are enabling them to thrive.
Both parties appear to be thriving because of dissatisfaction with the the current governing pro-Europe Democratic Party. There has been economic stagnation and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants from Africa (Horowitz). This arrival has caused a strong anti-immigrant sentiment that both of these party leaders are willing to voice. Salvini, for example, has convinced numerous voters that illegal migrants pose an existential threat, using the instance where a young woman was killed and dismembered in an Italian town in January by Nigerian immigrants as an example of this (Horowitz).
The framing of immigrants as a type of Other that should be expelled from Italy that the Five Star Movement and League parties are promoting is a pertinent threat to democracy. It signifies a clear preference for a certain type of people and threatens to represent only a select portion of the Italian population. It is likely that the civil liberties of immigrants could be threatened under the jurisdiction of a possible Parliament that these parties would play a large role in, which is an indicator of democratic backsliding.
One of the most effective mechanisms for ensuring the safety of democracy is keeping dangerous, potential would-be authoritarians like Di Maio and Salvini off the ballots. Since Italy did not do this, history shows that these types of popular candidates often rise in power, such as in the extreme cases of Hitler and Mussolini. It is difficult to persuade civilians that leaders like Di Maio and Salvini do not represent what is best for the country. Increased polarization among like-minded people that currently support these groups will likely be a significant issue, especially as time continues to pass and these fairly extremist leaders continue to promote their anti-European and anti-immigrant views. Those who hold moderate views on the topic will plausibly support extremes as more people within their party and the people that surround them support these extremes, and thus the beginnings of the curtailing of democracy that have been observed a plethora of times in the past can be seen.
In essence, because Italy utilizes proportional representation, or an electoral system in which parties gain seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for them, when the Parliament first convenes on March 23 that Five Star Movement and League will be substantially represented. If these two parties gather enough support and are able to form a majority coalition either together or separately, they will be able to hold a vote of no confidence. The current Prime Minister of Italy, Paolo Gentiloni, who is a member of the Democratic Party, could be replaced by a member of either the Five Star Movement or League. The leaders of either of these two parties coming to power would pose a serious threat to the sustenance of democracy in Italy.
If the Five Star Movement and/or League do continue to rise in power, it will be especially important for the other members of Parliament to work together to derail policies proposed that threaten core democratic values, such as equal representation, free and fair elections, etc, and for other parties to avoid forming coalitions with the Five Star Movement or League. It will also be necessary for international actors to closely monitor the actions of Italy and ensure that the government is held accountable through the backing of a credible threat, such as the rescinding of foreign aid, to ensure that policies that oppose democracy are not passively permitted.
Horowitz, Jason. “In Italy Election, Anti-E.U. Views Pay Off for Far Right and Populists.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Mar. 2018.
Lust, Ellen & Waldner, David. 2015. Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding. Washington, DC: USAID.
Muller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: UPenn Press.
Scheppele, Kim Lane. 2013. “Not Your Father’s Authoritarianism: The Creation of the ‘Frankenstate’.” European Politics and Society Newsletter.
*Photo by Jacopo Siminetti, “Italian Elections 2018” (Polinside), Creative Commons Zero license.