The aftermath of 2018 Italian elections has turned into a political reality show powered by the media system. Centre stage stands Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League, who became deputy prime minister, Interior minister and the de facto head of government. At his side is the other deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five Stars Movement and Welfare minister. Anything that Salvini and Di Maio say instantly becomes the object of analysis, comment and outrage amongst an increasingly crowded audience.
In Italy, whether you are sipping coffee at the bar or driving your car listening to any radio station you will inevitably hear the latest statements of the two leaders treated as the most important news of the hour. The same goes for national and local televisions, whose schedules are full of shows focused on the core issues of the two government parties: immigration, crime and the privileges of politicians. This priority news organisations accord to any utterance of these two politicians is shared by online news outlets, the press, and of course social media, the preferred communication channel of this new politics. An invasion of words and images in the middle of everyday life, that leaves little time to reflect on the ongoing change.
Everyone in Italy, apparently, is involved in this conversation. Supporters and opposers, actors and pundits, journalists and churchmen, old politicians and European statesmen. Everyone is engaged in a frenetic exercise since both Salvini and Di Maio speak at every hour of the day and intervene in any topic of domestic or international affairs. They dictate the agenda. Or rather, the public agenda is theirs. The consequence is that everyone in Italy is forced to speak for or against everything that Salvini and Di Maio say. You are a supporter or opponent in this bubble which leaves no space to find out what is real and what is fiction, what is politics and what is communication, what is an opportunity and what is a threat. Sometimes it seems that the League and the Five Stars Movement are acting both as government and opposition parties, so varied are their positions and extensive their visibility and so weak and diminutive the opposition.
It is this climate of permanent electoral campaigning that has normalised the expectation of a clash between Italy and EU on the next budget law. An intention deliberately immortalized by a picture portraying Mr Di Maio greeting a non-existent crowd from the balcony of the Prime Minister’s official venue in Rome. A perfect shot to feed the media bubble that surrounds Italian politics nowadays. Moreover, now this reality show is proving to be a critical turning point for the European Union as a whole, in view of the May 2019 vote. It would be wrong to think that the 2018 elections outcome represents an accident. It is similarly risky to assume that the strategy of Italy’s current government is oriented only to provocation, because it seems to remain so in tune with popular feeling.
That is why it’s worth answering the following question: what has inflated this bubble of brash words and mixed feelings, that is transforming Italy’s political landscape in a nationalist direction? There are three founding myths that have changed the attitude of many Italian citizens towards politics, the European integration process and the role of national identity during the last decade. They are the anti-political wave (2007), the advent of a pro-EU technocratic government (2011) and the refugee crisis (2015-2016).
In the eyes of many voters, the League and the Five Stars Movement seem to be the only parties to have listened to their request for help in these three periods. Three breaking points that also revealed a widespread crisis of the old political leaderships (in particular those of Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Renzi). Consequently, whether the current government succeed or fail in its objectives, and irrespective of arguments and deep differences between the populist parties, the old political landscape will hardly be restored.
So, the big story is not just the rise of a populist and nationalist leadership in Italy. The big story are the Italians themselves.
First of all, to find the trigger-word of the original ascent of the Five Stars Movement, we must understand the expression: la Casta. It’s a disparaging word to describe the political establishment as the privileged level of an exclusive caste social system. In Italy, this type of caste is linked to people and groups of people who held political power during the last decades.
It is an expression coined by two journalists of Corriere della Sera, the most authoritative Italian daily. In May 2007, Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo collected their inquires and published a best seller called la Casta, in which they listed the many inefficiencies and privileges of Italian politicians. In a country that reads little, the book sold more than a million copies, has inspired other journalists and has fuelled lots of talk show discussions. Most importantly, it has provided a lexical framework for citizens disappointed by their representatives.
However, it was not the media that benefited from this campaign against the establishment, but a new political movement founded by a comedian, who had become the most influential blogger of the country. In September 2007, Beppe Grillo filled several Italian squares railing against the political ‘caste’ asking for a two-term limit for any elected office and a prohibition against holding office if convicted of a crime. The slogan was: ‘Fuck off!’. In that year, the Five Stars Movement did not yet exist. But this popular mobilization was the basis of its birth. The new populist force, all organized on the web, would make its debut in the 2013 general elections, to become the first party (25,56%) outside the main coalitions. In 2018, Grillo’s movement exceeded 32%.
What is important is that the Movement’s founding issue (the so-called antipolitica) is now a milestone of the new political season in Italy. La Casta means privileges, and it is unpopular. Cutting of pensions to old lawmakers still remains a recurrent theme on the political agenda, even if the savings are small. No politician wants, moreover, shows his official car: last spring, during the long consultations which led to the formation of the current government, for the first time all the Italian leaders reached the presidential palace on foot. Even using the State plane to attend the G8 summit became embarrassing for the Prime Minister.
The symbols of power have become unpopular on the right and on the left. But in recent years the caste ended up embodying more than one enemy, the political élite. For the Five Stars Movement (and consequently the League), the caste are also journalists, cosmopolitan intellectuals and institutions that do not defend the national interest. This discourse is fuelled by arguments against globalization and EU institutions.
The second milestone of the new Italian populist and nationalist leadership is represented by events a few years back. When Mario Monti, a professor of Economics, replaced Berlusconi at the helm of the Italian government, Italy seemed to entre a period of catharsis. It was the fall of 2011. All the major parties decided to support the technocratic cabinet, called to approve a radical plan of social and economic reforms in order to avoid the Troika intervention by balancing the Italian budget and reducing the public debt.
In November 2011, it was said that the payment of public wages and pensions was at risk. During those difficult months, Italy was described as being on the brink of bankruptcy. And Berlusconi’s leadership, also weakened by a series of judicial inquiries, was accused of underestimating the effects of the financial crisis. Italy appeared as a new Greece, but too big to fail. For these reasons, the technocratic government had the support from Berlusconi’s party (Il Popolo della Libertà, center-right) and from the Democratic Party (centre-left). Adding other minor groups, it counted the support of 90% of the Parliament. The main opposition political forces were the Northern League, then a separatist party holding 4%, and the Five Stars Movement, that was still outside Parliament.
It can be said that in the long run the League and the Five Stars Movement have benefited from their role as opponents, building an effective rhetoric that identifies that period as a betrayal of national sovereignty. According to Mr Monti and his ministers, their action saved Italy and has made it a reliable partner for the international allies. But their government was soon labelled a commissioner imposed by the EU (especially by Germany), despite its backing by a very large parliamentary majority. The 2011 legacy has fuelled the discontent of Italians towards the European institutions and the so-called austerity economic policies.
Today no one but Monti defends the unpopular decisions of that government, that remained in office until spring 2013. No one remember that Monti was the first to really cut the costs of political ‘caste’: when he was PM he used to travel by train and demanded his ministers use old cars produced by Italian car manufacturers. On the contrary, everyone seems to remember that government for being too much pro-EU, too academic and not careful to the pauperization of the Italian families. Centre-right Berlusconi has long been talking about a coup against him, while centre-left Renzi used to define Monti a yes-man of Europe, even though both their parties shared Monti’s politics and paid a price for their support.
It is not a coincidence that revoking many measures implemented by the technocratic government is at the heart of the League and Five Stars Movement nationalist programs, even if it does not appear economically sustainable. For example, they proposed to deeply change the reform that increased the retirement age and the law that liberalized the opening of shops on Sundays. They may even abolish the constitutional balanced budget clause, which was approved by the Parliament in 2012. All projects and promises that challenge Brussels on the budget law seem to be vote-winners.
What is even more important is that the appointment of professor Monti as head of the Italian government, without calling new elections has fuelled the idea of a democratic betrayal, where the popular vote counts less than the EU institutions, the financial markets and bankers. An idea that has become very common through the Italian electorate that voted for the League and the Five Stars Movement. A sense of powerlessness that has increased the indignation towards the ‘caste’ of the traditional parties.
Resurgence of National Identity
If the technocratic government has strengthened mistrust of institutions, the new migration flows across the Mediterranean Sea have strengthened the demand for protection from the citizenry. A protection that was no longer offered by traditional parties. The League has got stronger precisely in this field: the immigration issue, linked to those of crime and terrorism, is what has enabled Salvini to transform an old regional party into a new nationalist one.
Italy pays a price for its bridge position in the middle of the Mediterranean. The country is one of the main access routes from Africa to Europe, like Spain and Greece, but also the most difficult to control. The Southern coasts of Italy have been the destination of periodical landings of tens of thousands of migrants since the Arab spring period. The arrivals, however, began to frighten the population during the 2015 crisis and beyond, although most of those people wanted to reach other European countries. Since then, immigration has been a favoured battleground in any local or national election.
This happened because Italy became a country of mass immigration very recently, but also because the flows of asylum seekers coincided with the global recession, with the increase in unemployment rates and with the wave of protest against the establishment. The political and media bubble has been flooded daily by images of migrants landing on Sicily’s shores or camped in the station squares in the North of Italy, as they try to reach France, Switzerland and Germany. In this situation, the League’s Italians First motto broke several taboos in a country that experienced the violence of Fascism. Four years ago, Salvini started talking about an invasion, that would threaten not only the security but also the traditional values of the Italian society. Although this definition was not justified by numbers, he managed to polarize the debate for or against immigration, for or against the national identity, and attune himself to a widespread popular grievance.
The progressive forces, that led the government from 2013 to 2018, paid for underestimating the demand of protection from the citizens. The same is happening to the European institutions, to which the current Italian government imputes the responsibility of the so-called invasion of foreigners. The threatened clash with the EU over the next budget law was preceded, last summer, by a clash on the distribution of new migrants among the various European countries. In the new nationalist and populist rhetoric, the two actions are intimately connected as they serve to coax Italians sense of pride: sovereignty means physical, cultural and political borders.
In conclusion, to understand the 2019 EU election campaign from an Italian point of view, it is necessary to take into account these three traumatic developments in Italy’s very recent history. They are a mix of League and Five Stars Movement political myths. But they can go beyond the fortunes of the two parties, that in fact are now under pressure from the EU and market forces, and may well pay a price for their excesses. Many Italians feel isolated and betrayed by a cosmopolitan elite they perceive as remote from their needs and daily experiences. They feel impoverished by pro-EU politics supported by that same elite. Finally, they feel threatened by globalization and the multiculturalism associated with this process of European integration. Borders are evoked and used to redeem these citizens, that according to populist and nationalist politicians coincide with all the Italian people.
It does not matter whether these fears are all real or not. These founding myths reshaped the party landscape, and they have deep roots in the political debate and in the daily media agenda. A bubble that can help explain some (if not all) causes of Italy’s resurgent nationalism.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog nor of the London School of Economics.
Alessandro Franzi is an Italian journalist who works for Rai national broadcast. He worked for several years for Italian news agency ANSA, writing about politics with particular interest in the Northern League and centre-right parties. He is the co-author of the ebook ‘il Militante’ on Matteo Salvini’s leadership. He holds a bachelor degree in History and is an MA Political Science candidate at the University of Milan with a thesis on Eurosceptic movements.
Related articles on LSE Euro Crisis in the Press: