On March 4, 2018, a mainstream populist party founded by a comedian won the most seats in the Italian parliamentary election. The Five Star Movement garnered 32.22% of the votes, trailed by the 18.9% vote share of the Democratic Party (PD) and the 17.69% share of Lega (League). Unfortunately, the election results may lead to a hung parliament without a majority, leaving President Sergio Mattarella to assign a formatuer for the new Italian government. A formateur is a lead politician in charge of forming a coalition government in a parliamentary democracy.
President Mattarella must assign a formatuer before the March 23rd vote of confidence, and his best choice is less than optimal. The most likely coalition to form would be one between the Five Star Movement and the League. Both parties share the same rhetoric on immigration and euroskepticism, and their desires to reform political representation are drawn from both nationalist and economic reasons.
The Five Star Movement (M5S) believes in direct democracy, universal basic income, anti-immigration, and euroskepticism. These policies transcend the left-wing right-wing spectrum and the party’s softening of its euroskeptic views have expanded its base. Similar trends have also been observed in Italy’s right wing. The League has broadened its pro-north policies to emphasize anti-corruption and federalism while remaining euroskeptic and anti-immigrant.
The League was originally a regional party of the north but has since expanded its base through euroskepticism and anti-immigration, especially for Muslims. The League’s harsh stances on crime are what created the right-wing coalition with Silvio Burloscini’s Forza Italia. While Burlosconi was part of the coalition, he recognized the EU’s banking regulations and debt rules unlike his far-right ally. Why would a former prime minister want to ally his party with a regional far-right party? Perhaps he thought he could co-opt League into moderating its euroskeptic views in order to maintain a majority. Obviously the election proved this wrong since the economic crisis, public discontent for establishment politicians, and the popularity of outside parties worked in favor of “charismatic outsiders” like Salvini and Di Maio.
Populism is not new to Italy, but its shift to the political mainstream is what sets the precedent for democratic erosion. The electoral reform law passed in 2017 incorporated first-past-the-post rules and PR to encourage coalitions that made it easier to win the minimum 3 percent party threshold needed for representation. Although former prime minister Silvio Burlosconi’s Forza Italia party was expected to win with his right-wing coalition, the complete opposite happened. The M5S won democratically and must now coalesce with the League or the Democratic Party in order to have a majority in parliament.
Italy has the second most debt in the EU just after Greece—130% of its GDP—and former prime minister Matteo Renzi failed to pass constitutional reform back in December 4, 2016. The referendum would’ve reduced the size of both houses of the legislature and ceded Senate powers to the lower house to eliminate gridlock. This in turn, would centralize government and consolidate the prime minister’s power. Matteo Renzi’s push for this constitutional change is an example of what Nancy Bermeo calls “executive aggrandizement”: the weakening of checks on executive power through legal means in order to eliminate political opposition. While Renzi aimed to stabilize a stagnant Italy, parties like the Five Star Movement and League viewed this as a sham for the misappropriation of public funds by the government in order to keep the wealth in the hands of the few. Both movements aimed to be alternatives to the traditional establishment of the Italian government, creating an “us versus them” narrative to bolster their popularity.
Italy’s central banks have $220 billion in bad loans and have been bailed out through government stimulus packages since 2008 in order to make capital cheaper and increase consumer demand. Recent bail outs have faced political backlash for being corrupt and for insufficiently contributing to economic recovery. M5S leader Luigi Di Maio has promised to help these banks in more practical ways while the League’s Matteo Salvini has criticized the EU for favoring the German currency at the cost of Italian sovereignty. An Italian Brexit is definitely foreseeable in the future.
While economics plays a role in explaining the victory of populist parties in Italy, the “parasite-host relationship” of global terrorism and populism has shifted political culture away from democracy. Threats from abroad question the establishment’s ability to protect its people and immigrants are the convenient scapegoat for such problems. Luigi Di Maio has criticized Italy as a “sea taxi service” for immigrants while Matteo Salvini has called for mass deportations of African migrants. According to Norris in Is Western Democracy Backsliding?, support for these parties is based on political sovereignty for the majority at the cost of minority groups and a disregard for the protection of minority rights due to the illegitimacy of the elite establishment.
The advent of populism in historically stable democracies is still being studied, and it is still too early to tell whether or not populism will replace democracy as the standard for 21st century governance or if the people that put these populists in power will become “victims of their gimmicks”.
Levitsky, Steven, & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. “Fateful Alliances.” Chapter 1 in How Democracies Die. NY: Crown Publishing.
Norris, Pippa. “IS WESTERN DEMOCRACY BACKSLIDING? DIAGNOSING THE RISKS.” Journal of Democracy, 2017.
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