Three reasons why populism is in crisis in Italy

Three reasons why the former political stars Matteo Salvini and Giuseppe Conte are having an increasingly difficult time.

Giorgia Meloni and her right-wing Fratelli d’Italia did very well in the recent municipal elections.

Alessandro Di Meo/EPO

The recent round of Italian municipal elections has produced some notable results, including former football star Damiano Tommasi’s victory in Verona. Tommasi, who was supported by the centre-left but campaigned independently of the parties, becomes mayor of a citywhich was long considered a stronghold of the right.

His win fits the overall picture: while the centre-right still has the largest number of mayors (13) in the 26 provincial capitals that recently held elections, the centre-left camp led by the strengthened Partito Democratico (PD) has caught up considerably: It is now at the helm in ten main places, four more than in the last local elections. It has increased nota bene in the north of the country, in the ancestral lands of the Lega. Three town halls went to citizen lists.

Cockfight at the Right

The shifts within the right-hand spectrum are also interesting. The trend of Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia overtaking Matteo Salvini’s Lega has been clearly confirmed. Meloni is now the undisputed leader of the “Centrodestra” – a situation that makes Salvini and Berlusconi visibly uneasy. North of the Alps one would describe their attitude towards the former junior partner as sexist, in Italy the media are somewhat more reserved in this regard. Meloni herself seems to rely on the power of facts – and these currently speak for her and her Fratelli, who emerged from the post-fascist movement.

It’s been raging since Sunday evening pretty fierce fight inside the Italian right: who is to blame for the mediocre results? Who can claim the title of «Leader»? And above all: Who will be head of government one day if the centre-right pulls together and wins in the national elections of 2023?

The dispute on the right of center and the decline of Salvini’s Lega is joined by the disintegration of the Cinque Stelle on the left. After Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio announced his departure from the comedian Beppe Grillo’s movement and won over 60 parliamentarians to his side, you can follow the collapse of the Cinque Stelle, after all the strongest force in the country in the last national elections in 2018, almost live.

Three Factors

Troubled Lega, dying stars: Italy’s two major populist parties seem to be reaching the end of their life cycle. Why? A few explanations:

Factor government participation: Both Lega and Cinque Stelle are part of Mario Draghi’s governing coalition. Unlike Melonis Fratelli d’Italia, they bear governmental responsibility – which gives them power and influence, but at the same time weakens their original profile as protest parties. Lega and Cinque Stelle are a good example of the theory that involvement in the government takes some of the edge off populist parties.

In contrast to Switzerland, it is more difficult in Italy to play a dual role as opposition and governing party, as the SVP and SP regularly do. Belonging to the government is more binding in Rome, and the strongest weapons of the opposition in Switzerland, initiative and referendum, are much more difficult to activate in Italy. Salvini’s most recent attempt to score points at the ballot box with a couple of judicial referendums failed miserably two weeks ago. Interest in the bills was extremely low, and the government presented (and gotten through) a bill in parliament that takes up the main concerns anyway.

Factor Draghi: With Mario Draghi, Italy still has a very popular head of government who is the complete opposite of a populist. With his characteristic sobriety, he shows the country that there is a politicizing beyond the operetta and the drama. The drop between Mario Draghi and Matteo Salvini or Giuseppe Conte from the Cinque Stelle is huge.

For weeks, Salvini and Conte have been trying to make life difficult for Draghi, in Ukraine politics, but also on the numerous reform sites. But Draghi has so far been remarkably successful in following through with his government program, partly with the disciplining use of the vote of confidence. In short: the dogs bark, the caravan moves on. This wears out even the hardest populists.

Factor Europe: The Draghi government is also guaranteeing the many billions of euros in European reconstruction aid that Italy is currently receiving from the EU. The money is bubbling up, but it dries up as soon as Italy’s reform drive comes to a halt. The politicians in Rome know that, and that’s why they don’t fundamentally question the government’s program. However, European and Italian populism has traditionally been fueled not least by hostility or at least skepticism towards the EU. In Italy this doesn’t work at the moment, the topic is gone. There is probably still some EU criticism in the country, but if it comes at all, it comes from Giorgia Meloni. But even the opposition leader fully supported Draghi’s policies in the Ukraine crisis.

New edition of the Ulivo?

Undoubtedly, populism is having a difficult time in Italy right now. The moderate left around Enrico Letta from the PD recommends itself to the voters as an antidote and is in the process of forming a broad partnership of parties with a view to the next national elections. Conte’s Cinque Stelle is still in Letta’s orbit, but as the election date approaches, Letta is increasingly looking for partners in the political center and in Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio’s new party.

Like him in the newspaper «La Stampa» said, he has a kind of “Ulivo” in mind, that is, the broad alliance that helped Romano Prodi win against Silvio Berlusconi in the 1990s. “The Ulivo was always a role model for me because it had a great ability to participate and expand beyond the political class,” said Letta.

Observers in Rome keep the partisan political situation for volatile. Nothing has been consolidated yet, the parties are still looking. Even a renaissance of the Lega and Cinque Stelle cannot be ruled out, especially if energy prices continue to rise and the economy falls into crisis mode.

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