Davide Vampa explores the sources of populism in Italy, its recent developments, and what this means for the country’s 2024 European Parliament election.

This article is part of a series seeking to understand the issues of political economy driving populist movements around the world as we proceed through the “year of elections.” We will publish a new article every week, which you can find here.

Italy has been fertile ground for populism across the ideological spectrum for over three decades. Populist impulses began in Italy with the collapse of its party system in the early 1990s—which had been in place since the end of WWII—due to rising government debt, corruption, and gridlock.  However, reforms did not end party fragmentation and governmental instability, and economic stagnation and strained public finances continued. On average, Italy’s annual economic growth has been less than 0.5% since 2000 (compared to more than 2% in the last decades of the 20th century) and its public debt as a percentage of GDP is the second largest in Europe (after Greece), at almost 140%.

Even as Italy performed worse than most Western European countries in economic terms, its political trajectory foreshadowed trends that later manifested in other established democracies, such as France, Germany, and Sweden. The upcoming 2024 European Union Parliament election is expected to mark a further step in this process of “Italianization” of politics on a continental scale, with increasing fragmentation, the rise of challenger parties, and growing uncertainty regarding the economic, social, and geopolitical direction pursued by other prominent countries, such as Germany and France. Consequently, an examination of the Italian case holds invaluable lessons for understanding broader contemporary political developments and their ramifications in Europe and beyond.

Populism in Italy: a not-so-recent phenomenon

The 1994 elections that overturned Italy’s major political parties handed power to media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi and his center-right party, Forza Italia. Although his first government was short-lived, Berlusconi proved politically resilient and was able to win power again from 2001 to 2006 and a third time from 2008 to 2011. In over two decades in politics, he also proved to be just as influential while in opposition. In many ways, Berlusconi served as the prototype for Donald Trump in the United States.

Berlusconi took power in 1994 by aligning with the Northern League, a right-wing regionalist party founded in 1989 which represented Italy’s more prosperous northern regions against what they argued to be wasteful redistribution to Italy’s less well-off southern regions. The Northern League’s rhetoric demonstrated an intertwinement of anti-government and anti-welfare policies with identity politics, sometimes amounting to calls for territorial autonomy and even secession. In this way, Italy also served as a precursor to the current challenges facing other Western European nations with robust regional identities and minority populations.

The global financial crisis at the end of the first decade of the 2000s accelerated the destabilization of the Italian political landscape. One consequence was the emergence of yet another populist force, the Five Star Movement (M5S), which has advocated for an idiosyncratic mixture of policies across the political spectrum, including direct democracy, a “citizens income,” skepticism toward the EU and globalization, and some hostility toward immigration. M5S quickly rose to prominence, asserting itself as a potent disruptive force and swiftly becoming the largest party in Italy. This success set the stage for further populist upsurges.

By the mid-2010s, the Northern League underwent a significant transformation, rebranding itself as the League and shedding its reference to Northern Italy. Under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, the party embraced Italian nationalism. Although initially overshadowed by the M5S, the League eventually surged ahead to become Italy’s largest political force in the 2019 European election. However, this ascendancy proved fleeting.

In 2022, Brothers of Italy, a relatively new far-right party established a decade earlier, achieved a historic victory in Italy’s general election. This is the first time a far-right party has led a government in Western Europe. However, Italy’s various populist parties have previously occupied government positions under various prime ministers and within diverse coalitions. Thus, while the ascent of Brothers of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni to prime minister marked a significant step in mainstreaming once-marginal political ideologies, it is not entirely unprecedented in a party system that has undergone a continuous and still unresolved process of transition for over three decades.

To a certain extent, the leading role of right-wing politics in Italian populism has been due to the failures of the mainstream and leftist parties. The Italian Communist Party was once the strongest communist party in Western Europe. In the late 1980s, it began a process of reform and transformation with the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, this process did not lead to the creation of a large social democratic party, similar to those existing in Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom or Northern Europe. Instead, it resulted in the creation of the Democratic Party, a combination of different center-left traditions, which has so far failed to develop a consistent and convincing ideological-programmatic platform. The result of this confused process of amalgamation has been a significant weakening of the left in its traditional constituencies, which appears even more dramatic than trends observed in other European countries. For instance, polls published after the 2022 general election suggested that the right-wing parties led by Meloni, Salvini, and Berlusconi together won more than 50% of the vote among manual workers, while the Democratic Party was stuck at around 10%.

The Economics of populism in Italy

The fragmentary nature of Italy’s politics reflects the country’s weak social cohesion between regions and a political system that orbits local special interest groups and local personalities. National parties are not monoliths but loosely tied politicians. A dysfunctional political system has allowed inequality to grow, as well as cynicism about the ability of the political and business elites and global markets to deliver prosperity.

Prior to the 2008 financial crisis and Eurozone debt crisis, Italian voters were overwhelmingly supportive of membership in the European Union. There existed a broad consensus regarding the advantages of participating in the single market for Italian exporting industries and fostering political and economic unity across the continent. Membership of the Eurozone also helped public finances.  Indeed, the cost of interest payments on government debt—including long-term bonds, long-term loans, and other debt instruments—to domestic and foreign residents dropped from around 27% of total government revenue in the mid-1990s to around 10% in the 2000s. Brussels was also perceived as an external catalyst for resolving national issues like corruption and public service inefficiencies. There was hope that EU membership could overcome the economic stagnation and political mire that led to the overhaul of the political system in the early 1990s and gave contemporary Italian populism its initial momentum.

The late 1990s likewise witnessed a partial recovery from the shocks of the preceding years. Yet, levels of growth never reached those seen in the 1980s, when Italy experienced a second economic miracle following the one of the 1950s and 1960s. The adoption of the Euro in 2002 did not necessarily prevent Italy’s economy from full recovery. Yet its coexistence with lackluster growth and a steep deterioration of Italy’s current account balance in the 2000s did begin to negatively influence Italians’ perceptions of the Euro and EU. As the decade continued and Italy’s economy continued to mire, more Italians began to blame the ongoing political and economic integration of the EU’s member states as well as the globalization of markets.

The financial crisis beginning in 2007 and the deterioration of Italy’s economy and public finances accelerated the shift in Italian public opinion towards Europe. In 2011, former European commissioner Mario Monti replaced Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister (Berlusconi had become prime minister for a third and final time in 2008). The financial crisis had led government debt to soar from around 100% of GDP to almost 120% of GDP, and Monti imposed painful austerity measures under the supervision of EU institutions.

The financial crisis cemented the EU’s transition away from being seen as a solution to domestic challenges to becoming a culprit for Italy’s economic woes. Eurobarometer surveys conducted regularly on behalf of the European Commission suggest that from 2008 to 2019, Italian citizens’ trust in European institutions declined sharply, particularly among manual workers and the unemployed, but also among small business owners. For instance, the share of manual workers that tended not to trust EU institutions increased by 14 percentage points between 2008 and 2019, reaching almost 60% in this category. These demographic groups formed the nucleus of the new populist surge that swept Italy in the 2010s, epitomized by the emergence of the Five Star Movement and the later meteoric rise of Salvini’s League. Salvini was particularly adept at linking Italy’s incomplete recovery from the financial crisis with social conservatism and anti-immigration stances, further fuelling this populist wave.

The global pandemic that hit Italy in early 2020 exacerbated pressures on the social and economic fabric of the country. Despite Europe’s financial support through the Next Generation EU package and a more positive technocratic experience under Mario Draghi’s government in 2021-22, the Italian electorate once again turned to the only major party that had not been in government since the Eurozone debt crisis. The far-right and Eurosceptic Brothers of Italy, led by Meloni, saw its share of the vote increase by more than 20 percentage points in just four years, from around 4% of the vote in 2018 to 26% in 2022. Clearly, Italian politics remain far from stabilizing. Thirty years since the reforms of 1994, Italian voters continue to seek radical solutions to political and economic malaise.

The 2024 EU elections and future of populism in Italy

Despite her anti-establishment promises, Meloni’s actions and policies since assuming the role of prime minister in October 2022 have not indicated a consistent shift to the far right. This could be seen as a classic example of “inclusion-moderation,” whereby a radical opposition party, upon entering government, is compelled to adopt a more pragmatic and moderate approach. On one hand, Meloni has positioned herself as a reliable international partner of the United States in an increasingly tense global scenario and has also embraced a “Eurorealist” stance rather than the Euroscepticism of fellow right-wing populists in Europe. On the other hand, while her economic agenda closely resembles that of previous centre-right and even technocratic governments, Meloni has effectively utilized identity politics to mobilize and maintain her support base, particularly through hostility toward migrants. The absence of a unified and coherent opposition capable of highlighting the contradictions within the ruling coalition’s politics has allowed Meloni to remain popular among voters.

Nationally, this likely means a continuation of Italy’s economic and political problems. After a post-Covid bounce, the country’s economic outlook remains weak. GDP grew less than 1% in 2023, and it is not expected to grow significantly in the next two years. The country’s public debt remains the second largest in Europe. This is combined with a population that is quicky ageing and shrinking, thus placing right-wing animosity toward immigration at odds with demographic trends. From another perspective, net migration in Italy collapsed after the financial crisis and it has remained at relatively low levels since then. In fact, Italy’s biggest problem is the emigration of young people due to very high levels of youth unemployment, which is still at around 23% in 2023 (and was above 40% after the financial crisis). Continued hostility toward immigration will only exacerbate anaemic growth and public debt.

Brothers of Italy’s moderation of some policies once in power has likewise been on display within the context of the European political landscape. The party has sought to forgo joining the European Parliament’s most far-right coalition, Identity and Democracy, in preference for the more center-right European Conservatives and Reformists group. Brothers of Italy is considering collaborating with the centre-right European People’s party, which supports the centrist Ursula van der Leyen as president of the European Commission. Consequently, Meloni has distanced herself from the League, a current coalition partner at the national level, and which has taken a more critical stance on Ukraine and forged stronger ties with other European far-right populist parties that are more anti-system and sceptical of the current European leadership.

Thus far, Meloni has managed to maintain her electoral advantage over the League among Italian voters. Voting intentions have remained fairly stable since the 2022 election, and Brothers of Italy is also still well ahead of the Democratic Party, its main centre-left competitor. Meloni and Salvini have competed for similar segments of the electorate, and in 2022, Meloni’s victory in the general election was largely attributed to her ability to attract votes from Salvini’s base. The growing differentiation between the two leaders may indicate a coordinated strategy aimed at avoiding excessive electoral overlap and maximizing voter appeal, with Meloni targeting moderate voters while Salvini maintains a focus on more far-right elements. However, accentuating these differences risks exacerbating fractures between and within right-wing parties, potentially triggering centrifugal dynamics that lead to destabilizing outcomes such as the collapse of the executive. This seems unlikely at the moment, but Italian politics is famous for its sudden shifts. The upcoming European Parliament election in Italy will thus be an important moment not only to assess the actual strength of Meloni’s support, but also to test the internal cohesion and stability of her governing coalition in a country that has long proved highly unpredictable.

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