Populism in Europe has been on the rise in recent years, especially in countries like Poland, Germany, the UK and France. Italy has become the latest country to join that list after its recent election held on March 4th 2018. The election demonstrated a significant support for populist parties. 50% of the Italian vote was split between the populist Five Star Movement and the anti-Immigrant League. The Five Star Movement alone won 32% of the vote ending Italy’s 70 years of centrism. Italy’s Five Star Movement is an anti-establishment party led by comedian Bebbe Grillo that was founded in 2009. The increased support for these populist parties, namely the Five Star Movement, has worried many political analysts and leaders. While populism might seem like it’s rooted in democratic values and party leaders usually attain power through democratic institutions, many political theorists find that populism can actually erode democracy.
Populist parties aren’t truly democratic by definition. Populism is ingrained in an in group/out group dichotomy. Populist leaders claim to represent a silent majority that they assert hasn’t been represented in the government. This silent majority is usually referred to as the “people” and is the in group of the populist dichotomy. The out group tends to be the elite and upper-class portion of the population. Populist leaders aim to lift the in group over the out group by representing and passing policies that favor the in group’s interests. This is evidenced by the Five Star Movement which is embedded in the rejection political elites. Some of the party’s main policies and ideological themes are rooted in environmentalist, eurosceptic and anti-globalist sentiments. It’s also based on the idea that the internet can be the basis for political interaction, trying to distance itself from formal organization, headquarters and money. The party has gained support, especially amongst younger demographics, since it doesn’t represent the upper political class and strays away from typical political institutions. However, while it is argued that this party works within the framework of democratic institutions, since it only aims on representing a subset of Italy’s populace it isn’t truly democratic.
Many supporters of the Five Star Movement argue that the party’s support comes from across the political spectrum and doesn’t only cater to one sector of the population. However, due to the Five Star Movement’s aversion of social elites and immigrants, the party’s policies aren’t representative of the interests of all citizens. This is shown through the party’s anti-immigration sentiment. Grillo stated in December 2016 that all undocumented immigrants in Italy should be expelled, calling for mass deportations around the country. He further stated that the Schengen Agreement (a treaty largely abolishing border checks between various European countries) should be suspended until the threat of terrorism in European countries declined. Italy reached 600,000 migrants that have arrived from North Africa since 2014 and the refugee management continues to be a pressing political issue. Luigi Di Maio, who is another leader of the Five Party Movement, called for an instantaneous stop of the sea-taxis that bring migrants into Europe in August 2017. This type of anti-immigration sentiment that harps on xenophobic notions tends to have negative spillover costs on some parts of the population. The fear of refugees and terrorism is strongly linked to Islam. 43% of citizens in Europe, namely in Italy, Hungary, Greece, Poland and Spain, have an unfavorable view of Muslims. This type of sentiment is exacerbated by reactionary anti-immigration policies based on the fear of terrorism and refugees. This also contributes to xenophobia and reinforces a racial hierarchy that can undermine foreign-born citizens and minorities in Italy.
Moreover, the Five Star Movement’s economic policies not only aren’t representative of the population’s interests, but they also allow the party to use the economy as political leverage. The Five Star Movement has stated they would refuse large donations from big businesses and have promised to return any donation over €5,000. Grillo is also very eurosceptic and is critical of euro membership which rattles markets and Italian business-owners. The nationalization of the economy through increased control over businesses and command over the country’s resources, contributes to democratic erosion. It allows Italy to use the economy as leverage for political support. Additionally, the Five Star Movement has relatively strong protectionist ideals. The party has made protectionism, through opposing free trade deals, their main foreign policy priority. Members of the party claim they want to fight against “all those treaties that the EU is negotiating in the world… that put workers’ rights, social rights, and environmental protection at risk.” The application of protectionist measures by closing the country’s borders and reducing trade means Italy is more insulated from international pressures to democratize. Higher levels of protectionism decrease the interaction with intergovernmental organizations such as the IMF. In the case of the Five Star Movement, this is could also be applied to the party’s euroscepticism. This not only allows them to ignore pressures to democratize, but it also allows Italy to disregard the EU’s vision of union and prosperity. By choosing to ignore EU rules like keeping Italy’s deficit below 3% of GDP, which they claim is not convenient for Italy, Italy is placed in collision with other EU countries that they’re meant to be unified with.
It’s clear that populist parties like the Five Star Movement in Italy can have a considerable impact on a country’s democracy. The representation of a subset of the population leads to policies that aren’t truly democratic or representative, such as anti-immigration policies, that undermine certain parts of the population. This misrepresentation combined with the Five Star Movement’s economic policies that allow the party to use the economy for political support while also ignoring international demands is what results in serious blows to Italy’s democracy. With Europe’s increasing globalization and large middle class, it’s possible to see continued support for populism. This begs the question: is democracy in Europe on a downward spiral?
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