The recent general election in Italy that occurred on March 4, 2018, showed that the state is moving away from its democratic ties. Democratic backsliding can be defined as the breaking down of, “qualities associated with democratic governance within any regime” (Lust). The election was held because President Sergio Mattarella dissolved the Italian Parliament last winter. The recent election showed that the anti-establishment stances of the Five Star Movement and the League prove to have nationwide support. The state is no stranger to fascism as during the early to mid-1900s Benito Mussolini ruled with an authoritarian and nationalist ideology. Italy seems to be flirting with fascism once again.
Last year in Italy a law was passed that was aimed at the Five Star Movement making it extremely difficult for any single party to win the election. This action did the opposite of what the Italian government had hoped it would do. The Five Star Movement was able to gain the votes of Italians who were furious at the government for enacting this law. By attempting to block populist parties from gaining power, the government only counter-acted their attempt to stay a democracy by expanding their power showing how they were backsliding in attempt to gain control.
In the election, the populist group the Five Star Movement won the plurality of the vote with 32.22%. The Democratic party faced a devastating loss only receiving 18.9% of the vote and the League, a far-right party, trailed closely behind with 17.69% of the vote. No political party won a majority of the vote, therefore showing that Italy is most likely heading towards a hung Parliament.
The Five Star Movement holds populist ideals while the League supports far-right ideals. Italian citizens are fed up with the Parliament that has allowed for the public debt to rise to roughly 130% GDP, done barely anything to help the increasing unemployment rate, and has allowed for more than 600,000 migrants to land in Italy during the past four years causing the citizens to have extreme anti-immigration sentiment.
Matteo Renzi who was the leader of the Democratic party (PD) which once had wide-spread support across the state resigned after the embarrassing loss of votes in the election. Renzi pronounced that the democratic party will stand up against the Five Star Movement and the League’s “anti-Europeanism, their anti-politics and the verbal hatred they have directed at the Democratic Party members.” Although, Renzi’s resignation seems as though he is accepting the Italian democracy’s defeat to the populist and far-right party.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella must find someone who can successfully put together a stable government that can withstand a vote of confidence in the new Parliament. This will be an extremely difficult task as any parliament that does not include the Five Star Movement or the League will lead to the questioning of the Italian democracy. This is so because these groups received an adequate number of votes from the Italian citizens, therefore a legitimate democracy would implement what the people voted for. Although, if and when these groups gain a substantial amount of power in the government the Italian democracy will be backsliding because of their populist and far-right perspectives.
Populism is a threat to democracy. Populism is a political philosophy that backs anti-establishment and anti-pluralist views. Populism can be dangerous as it denies the rights of the opposition to exist as it opposes the discussion of the minority perspective. A democracy is a type of government where all citizens are given equal rights; regardless of if they are in the majority or minority of the population.
Left-wing populism often has more lasting roots compared to right-wing parties which are often driven by crises. The League party formed because of the multiple crises that are occurring in Italy: economic and immigration issues. Right-wing groups call for the need of economic development within their states through things like open markets and international free trade. Although these things come with consequences as they come with an international pressure to maintain democracy, therefore left-wing populist have a better chance of surviving. If the League were to gain power, their reign would most likely not last long.
Executive aggrandizement occurs when a ruler takes power with democratic ideals but then backslides. This can be done by removing presidential term limits, weakening opposition by changing the electoral system, controlling the media, and taking power from constitutional checks over executive power. The aggressive leaders of the Five Star Movement and the League show signs of what could be authoritative leaders.
In Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky How Democracies Die, the authors explain the main indicators of authoritarian behavior: rejection of democratic rules, denial of political opponents, encouragement of violence, and allowance of restricting civil liberties.
The Five Star Movement was founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo and now is led by the charismatic Luigi Di Maio because the founder could not run for political office as he was convicted of manslaughter from a car accident. When watching a video of the comedian speak it is very evident that he is angry at the institutions in place. When confronted about the results on the general election Luigi Di Maio stated, “We are the absolute winners of these elections.” Maio is turning the election into an us against them scenario. Maio is denying his political opponents legitimacy which is a sign of an authoritarian leader. Even though his party did not obtain a majority of the votes he still is pronouncing that his movement was the “absolute” victor.
There has been a rise in political violence from far-right supporters in Italy. The League which is a far-right political party is led by Matteo Salvini. Recently a far-right supporter who unsuccessfully ran as a candidate in a local election for the League was arrested for opening fire on African migrants. The extreme supporter told police that Salvini was his “captain.” The hostile anti-immigration sentiment of this party has led to this toleration of violence. Salvini stated, “whoever shoots is a delinquent, no matter the skin color. It is clear that out-of-control immigration … brings social conflict.” This statement makes it evident that Salvini tolerates violence. Far right leaders like Salvini are attempting to capitalize on this anti-immigrant sentiment in order to gain political power.
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni warned, “the state will be particularly severe against whoever thinks of feeding the spiral of violence.” As this statement was directed at Salvini no retributions have occurred. If the Five Star Movement and the League do gain political power in the Parliament Italy will be on its way to becoming a populist state. From Luigi Di Maio’s denial of political opposition and Matteo Salvini’s tolerance of violence an authoritarian leader could be in Italy’s near future.
Lust, Ellen & Waldner, David. 2015. Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding. Washington, DC: USAID.
Levitsky, Steven, & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. “Fateful Alliances.” Chapter 1 in How Democracies Die. NY: Crown Publishing.
Photo by Reuters/Max Ross, “To the polls!”, Creative Commons Zero license.