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Home Opinion Italy: the prospects for populism
Lega Nord • Beppe Grillo • Mario Monti

Italy: the prospects for populism

Duncan McDonnell - 03 September 2012

The Lega Nord and Beppe Grillo’s 5-Star Movement will continue to expose the organisational and ideological frailties of mainstream parties

If you were to try and design a populist’s nightmare government, it might look something like this: a cabinet without a single party representative, composed mostly of academics and senior civil servants; imposed under pressure from the European Union and the financial markets; no electoral mandate for its 18-month term; charged with introducing spending cuts and tax hikes; supported in parliament by an unprecedented coalition of the main parties of centre-right, centre-left and the centre.

And the prime minister? Before taking office, he was president of the private Bocconi University in Milan and European Chairman of the Trilateral Commission. Previously, he had been an international advisor to Goldman Sachs and on the Senior European Advisory Council of the ratings agency Moody’s. Before all that, he served for 10 years as a European Commissioner. Welcome to Mario Monti’s technocratic government. Welcome to Italian Politics in 2012.

Of course, in reality, the above is also a populist challenger’s dream government: it offers ample opportunities to claim (justifiably) that the main parties have collectively abandoned the responsibilities of both government and opposition and handed the running of the country over to unelected domestic and international elites.

It is no surprise therefore that the most vociferous opponents of the Monti government are the Lega Nord (LN - Northern League) and Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S - 5-Star Movement), both of which espouse a strong anti-establishment discourse and invoke returning democracy to the people. However, the fortunes of these two movements have been very different over the past year. While the M5S enjoyed unexpectedly good results in the 2012 local elections and saw its support in opinion polls surge from circa 5 per cent in April to around 20 per cent in the summer, the Lega has had to deal with its enforced departure from coalition government last November, the end of its alliance with Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PDL – People of Freedom), and, finally, an expenses scandal which led to the resignation in April 2012 of its founder and leader, Umberto Bossi.

Although many in the Italian media were quick to proclaim the terminal decline of the Lega under the combined weight of Bossi’s departure, internal disputes and opinion polls which put its support at 5 per cent, down from over 10 per cent just two years ago, it would be extremely foolish to write the party off.

First of all, despite the often trotted-out line about charismatic leaders being irreplaceable, there is no reason to think that Bossi’s resignation in itself will have an adverse electoral impact on the Lega. Quite the opposite is possible in fact: his replacement, Roberto Maroni, was consistently the most popular minister in the PDL-Lega government from 2008-2011 and, crucially, so far seems to be uniting the movement behind him.

Second, the Lega is not a party (like the PDL) whose lifespan depends on its founder. As Daniele Albertazzi and I showed in a 2010 article in West European Politics, it has a clear ideology, a distinct policy offer, a growing membership and a well-structured and active party organisation.

Third, while the expenses scandal and Bossi’s involvement in it certainly have weakened the party’s self-portrayal as ‘different’ from the other parties, the Lega was quick to deal with the problem: heads rolled, including that of the founder-leader. It would be hard to imagine any of the other Italian parties acting so decisively.

Finally, despite the LN’s current estrangement from the PDL, it is quite probable – given the bipolar logic enforced by Italian electoral systems at both national and subnational levels – that a rapprochement between the two will be engineered in time for the 2013 general election.

As for Grillo’s movement, it too has come under sustained attack in the Italian media which has tended to dismiss it as ‘anti-political’. However, this is far too simplistic. While the M5S is certainly ‘anti’ the main parties, ‘anti’ the Monti government and ‘anti’ austerity, it is not anti-politics per se. Nor is it a flash-in-the-pan movement. In fact, Grillo’s meet-ups and then the M5S have been active for at least five years at grassroots level in campaigns ranging from sustainable development to political transparency to utility privatisations.

The M5S is not saying that politics is a dirty world which voters should keep at arm’s length by voting for it. Rather, it is saying that citizens themselves should become more involved in scrutinising and shaping decisions. It is true that it attracts a certain protest vote and it seems highly unlikely that its current poll ratings could be reproduced in a general election. Nonetheless, it is not going to politely fade away once the 2013 campaign begins.

The M5S will be a force to be reckoned with and those on the centre-left would do well to start considering it more seriously than they have done so far, not only because of the votes the M5S will take from the leading centre-left party (Partito Democratico, PD) and others on the Left, but also because of the grievances Grillo’s movement expresses. But that is unlikely to happen.

Rather, the PD leader, Pierluigi Bersani, seems to be adopting the tactic of doing as little as possible now that his party is in first place in the polls, with ratings around 25 per cent. Of course, that will not be enough for the PD to win on its own. And, at less than 9 months from the general election, we still do not know for sure whom the party will ally with, who the leader of that coalition might be, how he/she will be chosen, and, as ever, the chronic problem for the PD since its foundation: what are its key policies and what does it stand for? Count on its opponents, populists included, being better organised and certainly better at communicating as we approach the campaign. They usually are.

Duncan McDonnell is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences in the European University Institute

Read about the Policy Network/ Barrow Cadbury Trust project "Populism, extremism and the mainstream"


Flickr Image © qifei

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on The limits of nation state social democracy.

Tags: Mario Monti , Lega Norde , Beppe Grillo , 5-Star Movement , Northern League , Umberto Bossi , Silvio Berlusconi , Pierluigi Bersani , Popolo della Libertà , Partito Democratico , Roberto Maroni , anti-politics , populism , electoral politics , Policy Network

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21 September 2012 12:23

GinjaActually ours is quite mixed. We keep a lot of older more experienced blekos who like the chance at a bit more time home and have made the big dollars allready. Many of the older blekos are on the big ticket machines, so the drop in pay from 2/1 across to 1/1 is easier for them to take.But we do tend to lose more of our trainees, as they are chasing the money once they get a bit of experience they go for longer shifts at other sites, more money rather than a relaxed lifestyle.about 2 years back was extremely hazardous, about 50% of our underground staff had less than a years experience. Thats a criticaly low level of experience, not enough vets to watch out for people making mistakes. Id normaly be concerned when it hit 25%. Everyone in the industry was in the same state, but not much could be done but try and increase training and supervision as much as possible.Ive only had to attend one fatality at my site, I worked on the bloke for an hour but couldnt get a pulse back. Its my terror I have to do it to a mate (its callous but the bloke had only been with us a couple of weeks). Of the 5 people involved in the incident theres only one left in mining I know of. Most older (50plus) miners have lost workmates at some stage.Heres an example of how easily lack of experience will get you killed.A new chumwas sent to wash down a heading after a blast, a number of things went wrong.1: The shift boss at the time didnt carry out his gas monitoing well enough.2: The vent bag had been blown down the drive and was also damaged futher back meaning blast fumes hadnt dissapated properly.3: The area was choked with dust, if hed been experienced he would have known that meant bad vent.4: the 2 experinced chaps he was with droped him off to do that job without checking it themselves.5: the drive was on an upward slope, which meant gases lighter than normal air hadnt dissapated (carbon monoxide in this case)He was fortunate that he stopped washing down when he began to feel a bit sick, by the time he got back to the main decilne he was in a state of collapse. 5 more minutes of toughing it out probably would have killed him.Theres nothing more dangerous than unsupervised, inexperienced miners.

Mario Ricciardi
13 September 2012 18:41

Perhaps talking about "leadership" in this case is inappropriate, at least if we assume British parties as terms of comparison. Bersani does not have full control of his party. Doing "as little as possible" - as you say - might be a reasonable strategy in a situation like this.

Duncan McDonnell
11 September 2012 20:28

Bersani has been party leader for almost three years. Surely it is an indictment of his leadership if the PD still, as you say, "remains in confusion concerning its leading principles"?

Mario Ricciardi
07 September 2012 14:53

I agree with your analysis and with your conclusions regarding Bersani's strategy. Indeed he is as little as possible. One must recognize, however, that he has little choice until the party remains in the present confusion concerning its leading principles. As the reactions to Matteo Renzi's challenge to Bersani leadership show, inside the PD there are people who subscribe to very different political agendas.

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