While the rise of populism in Europe is often viewed as a recent phenomenon, Italy’s experience with populist parties stretches back several decades. Giuliano Bobba draws on developments in Italy to isolate four key implications that populist parties can have for democracy. He argues that although the nature of populism might differ from party to party, populist politicians should be viewed chiefly as political entrepreneurs capable of building off several problems not adequately addressed by mainstream parties.
Silvio Berlusconi, Credit: European People’s Party (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Over the past two decades, Italy has been one of the strongest and most enduring markets for populist parties in Western Europe. While in other European countries the rise or the emergence of populism is a recent development or has occurred only occasionally, it is a persistent feature of Italian politics. In the sixteen years since 2001, Italy has had populist governments for roughly half of this period (eight and a half years) if one counts the three governments led by Silvio Berlusconi that were in power from 2001 until 2005, 2005 to 2006, and 2008 to 2011. Furthermore, in the last Italian general election in 2013, populist parties (People of Freedom/Forza Italia, Lega Nord, and the Five Star Movement) gained over 50% of the vote.
Interestingly, if one looks closely enough, they can identify some common patterns characterising the emergence of populist parties in Italy. In the early 1990s, the rise of Forza Italia (FI) and the Lega Nord (LN – Northern League) was closely tied to political and economic crises. In a similar fashion, since 2008 a new period of economic and political crisis has coincided with the ascent of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. Italy thus offers a useful case study for assessing the consequences that are implied by a continuous and strong populist presence in national politics. If we look across these years as a whole, the Italian experience highlights four particular threats to democracy that can emerge from this populist presence.
First, there have been implications for the checks and balances that exist within the Italian political system. Populist parties have repeatedly attacked the work of judges, notably in the case of Silvio Berlusconi. They have also had a sizeable impact on the role of the media in Italian politics. This is true both of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Five Star Movement, who have both posed a threat to the freedom and autonomy of media organisations.
Second, there has been a general oversimplification of political discourse in Italy. The debate about the cost of politics is a good example. Initially introduced by the Northern League and Forza Italia in the 1990s, complaints over the cost of politics have also become one of the most successful topics for Beppe Grillo to mobilise support around. Yet despite the presence of this debate for two decades in Italian politics, the political attention it has received has failed to produce significant savings (as shown, for instance, by several expensive and incomplete attempts to abolish provincial councils). There is cross-party consensus among the main political parties on the need to reduce the number of MPs. This implies a certain reduction of political representation, while the reduction in terms of the cost of politics is rather uncertain.
Third, Italy has experienced the spread of populist themes and frames even among non-populist parties. In the last few years, the success of populist campaigning among citizens has pushed even mainstream parties to react using populist rhetoric, styles and sometimes also populist content of their own. An example would be a much-shared Facebook post produced by Matteo Renzi on migration, which stated that ‘we need to free ourselves from a sense of guilt. We do not have the moral duty to welcome into Italy people who are worse off than ourselves’.
Finally, Italian populism illustrates the so called ‘cultivation theory’. To paraphrase George Gerbner and his colleagues, instead of ‘growing up with television’ we might address the issue of ‘growing up with populism’. Italy is now characterised by general discontent among citizens and strong political disaffection. The country is not an exception in this respect among Southern European countries and, obviously, the blame for this situation cannot be attributed solely to populist parties. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that, at least in part, the success of populist parties is achieved through the de-legitimisation of politics, institutions, and the ruling class, and that it produces a vicious circle fuelling citizens’ distrust and dissatisfaction.
Although populist parties can pose threats of this nature to democracy, usually their leaders are also political entrepreneurs that build off several problems not adequately addressed by mainstream parties. Their successes, indeed, rely on the ineffectiveness of governments to take seriously the problems identified by populist parties, such as political corruption, inefficient use of public money, the integration of migrants, and the demands of those who are excluded from the benefits of the globalisation process. Finding viable solutions to these issues is the obligatory path for Italian politics to follow if it is to reduce the growing gap that separates it from Italian citizens.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
Giuliano Bobba – University of Turin / Collegio Carlo Alberto
Giuliano Bobba is Assistant Professor at the University of Turin. His research interests include relationships between governments, parties and the media; election campaigns at the European, national and local levels; the European public sphere; and populism.
Superficially this seems a reasonable article – but it seems to have a negative undertone of othering running through it:
“Populist” Parties are bad – but without saying “why” they are bad.
Meanwhile the average voter, sees a Party breaking through as “popular” and a healthy result of a responsive and flexible democracy.
So tagging “populist” seems like a shorthand nod & wink between the cogniscenti – because “we” all supposed to “know” why populism is “bad”.
“Populist” voters are at best uninformed – but hinting at worse.
If this article replaced “populist Parties” with (say) “change Parties”, the article could still be a useful skim through European national politics and lose the slightly sneering, dismissive air.
“ populist parties can pose threats of this nature to democracy”
Why not “establishment parties can pose a threat to democracy” if they become self-serving, resisting people’s desire for change ?
nice phrase. I usually call them opportunists, or parasites.
To the other commenter: the difference between populism and democracy is that democracy includes both majority voting and on the same level of constitutional importance inviolable protections for minorities and non-citizens’ human rights, and mechanisms within the State, especially the judiciary, to keep a reasonable degree of objectivity and not just let executive government follow the misinformed and manipulated “majority will” over the cliff following fantasies and illusions, which are often in times like these fed to them or amplified by hostile foreign governments, i.e. Russia.
Interesting definition of “populism”. Let’s unpack it.
We haven’t space to cover every Party labelled by the commentariat as “populist” so lets try UKIP.
(If you think this is a strawman because UKIP is NOT populist, then please say so.)
– “inviolable protections for minorities and non-citizens’ human rights,”
Which “inviolable protection for minorities” has UKIP proposed to remove?
And which “human rights” for “non-citizens”?
No-one has suggested that an EU citizen on a work visa should lack basic protection under the law.
Whether a non-citizen should be entitled to the fullest range of state benefits (not being a “human right”) – that have been paid for by citizens’ taxes is surely a legitimate discussion?
(Migrants to Australia have to put up something like A$14,000 against possible welfare claims in the first few years)
– “mechanisms within the State, especially the judiciary, to keep a reasonable degree of objectivity”
The UK’s Supreme Court has demonstrated that it can find against the UK Government.
Has UKIP proposed neutering the SC ?
– “not just let executive government follow the misinformed and manipulated “majority will” over the cliff following fantasies and illusions”
UKIP only had a majority at the European elections 2014 – but it didn’t attract 17,200,000 votes.
I’m sure you weren’t referring to Leave voters as that would have been rude and disrespectful 😉
But just in case……
a) misinformed ? Older Leavers were better informed than younger ones.
b) manipulated ? Leave voters managed to ignore the “manipulation” of predictions of an armageddon future
c) “fantasies and illusions” would be rude and disrespectful .. but I feel sure that this was not directed at Leave voters who could see and experience very clearly the negative impacts of large-scale migration.