Italy has emerged from yet another political crisis following the general election in March with a new government, but it hasn’t been an easy ride. The big winners were the two populist parties; League from the right, a recently re-branded version of the Northern League who since the early 1990s have dominated right-wing Italian populist politics along with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and the enigmatic Five-Star Movement (FSM) which combines a Eurosceptic approach with elements of populist leftism. Following intense negotiations over two months and the initial repudiation of Eurosceptic Paolo Savona as Minister of Economy and Finance by the Italian President Sergio Mattarella, a compromise was found and a new government formed in an unlikely populist coalition.
The history behind the coalition members
Firstly, it is important to understand that the newly re-branded League entered the election as part of a centre-right electoral coalition with Forza Italia along with other Conservative parties such as Brothers of Italy, Us with Italy and Union of the Centre, the ideological heir of the Christian Democratic party that dominated Italian politics from the 1940s until the corruption scandals of the early 1990s. They are led by Matteo Salvini who is now Deputy Prime Minister and a former MEP from Milan who also has experience of local politics on Milan council from 1993 to 2012. Salvini, known by League supporters as the ‘Captain’, was formerly a socialist in his youth before joining the Young Pandians, the youth wing of the then Northern League.
In 2013, Salvini became Northern League leader when he trounced Umberto Bossi (now in prison for corruption) in the same way Nigel Farage altered the political landscape with UKIP and the populist right in the UK. Since his election, Salvini has emphasised the party’s Euroscepticism and anti-immigration stance. Despite mixed results in local elections, the Northern League did well in the 2014 European elections.
Historically the Northern League (as the name suggests) has been a regional party which not only advocated a nationalist, Eurosceptic approach, but also acted as a separatist party arguing that the wealthy north should not fund the feckless backward south and urges if not full independence for the north, then substantial autonomy and the establishment of a federal Italian state. In this respect, there are clear similarities to the neo-Thatcherite elements of UKIP as well as the right-wing aspects of Catalan nationalism bemoaning the financially wasteful Spanish state. Indeed, the League has even developed a name for their ideal northern state, ‘Padania’, and claim themselves to be Padanian nationalists.
The Northern League emerged out of other regional parties in the 1980s such as Lega Lombarda and Allenza Nord who combined together for the purposes of the 1989 European elections before eventually amalgamating into one party in 1991. However, even after the Northern League was formed regional sections of the party remained as a form of local or sub party structure (for example Lega Nord Piemont and Lega Veneta). In the early 1990s Italian politics was engulfed in corruption scandals (something that is shown in the excellent Italian political drama 1992) that embroiled the Christian Democrats and Socialists giving credence to the League slogan “Roma ladrona” (Rome big thief) as the party made headway in local elections- winning the Milan mayoralty in 1993 as well as having 56 deputies and 26 senators elected at the 1992 general election. Indeed, the League fought the 1994 election in alliance with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and held some government ministries in the short-lived 1994 Berlusconi led government.
Following this the League became increasingly pragmatic, supporting centre-left administrations across Italy when necessary and performed well at the 1996 general election before claiming that they wanted the succession of Northern Italy; something that was reinforced by a bizarre ceremony when then leader Umberto Bossi took some water from the River Po which he poured into the sea near Venice two days later as a symbolic birth of the new nation of Padania. Subsequently, the League was a key Berlusconi ally following his re-election in 2001 and again from 2008 to 2011 holding a number of key ministries such as Labour, Justice and agriculture amongst others. Following the Berlusconi’s premiership, the League went into decline and factional infighting prior to Salvini’s leadership.
In contrast, the Five Star Movement is much newer having only been formed in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio, a web strategist a movement that has taken Italian politics by storm and has been described as populist, anti-establishment, environmentalist, anti-globalist and Eurosceptic. Unlike the League which is a more traditional right-wing party, FSM doesn’t necessarily fit neatly into the left/right paradigm with some accusations that it is right wing due to its anti-immigration stance yet also promoting policies usually advocated by leftists such as a citizens income and environmentalism. However, members themselves argue that the FSM is just that, a movement rather than a political party. This is reflected in the strong grassroots participation which has included members forming policy through online member led votes. Indeed, the Five Stars that give the movement its name and logo include the key issues for members: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, right to internet access and environmentalism.
Although the Five Star Movement itself started in 2009 the origins go back to 2005 when Beppe Grillo arranged meetings for supporters of proposals in his online manifesto to meet up face to face meetings calling themselves ‘The 40 friends of Beppe Grillo’. These meetings evolved into discussions on a wide variety of topics such as technology and innovation, press communication, ethical consumerism and currency study. These gatherings expanded to national meetings in Piacenza, Turing and Sorrento led by Grillo, followed by the establishment of a national civic list of potential electoral candidates.
Grillo took things one step further in 2007 with the establishment of his ‘V’ days in 2007, with the V standing for Vaffanculo (F off). These were events that included public mobilisation and the collection of signatures in order to create laws through popular initiatives while the provocative name had references to the D-Day landings as well as the film V for Vendetta linked to the idea of political renewal. Grillo marched on, arguing for the need for a ‘clean parliament’ while also advocating for more direct democracy through referendums.
In October 2009 the FSM was born and impressive results were achieved in local elections during 2010, 2011 and 2012 with the highlight being the FSM capturing the Mayoralty of Parma. In the run-up to the 2013 general election Five Star candidates were chosen through an online primary, and, in the election itself, the FSM achieved 25% of the vote in elections to the Chamber of Deputies and 23% for the Senate. This meant 108 deputies and 54 Five Star senators were elected with Five Star the biggest party in Liguria and also in much of the south including Abruzzo, Marche, Liguria, Sicily and Sardinia, a pattern that would be repeated in the 2018 general election. However, at this stage the FSM was unable to go into government, not just because of the antipathy towards it from the then incumbent centre-left Democratic Party, but also due to its refusal to form alliances with other parties, something that was becoming essential to govern in modern Italian politics with its eccentric PR/First Past the Post hybrid electoral system.
In the 2014 European elections, Five Star achieved 21% of the vote, second place at a national level which resulted in the election of 17 MEPs. However, as a new, almost post-Ideological protest movement, the FSM lacked any European affiliation and the horse-trading regarding European Parliament affiliation began. Shortly after the election the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), a Europhile bloc that includes the Liberal Democrats in its ranks and is currently led by anti-Brexit ex-Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt rejected the FSM as a member citing there Euroscepticism and populism. Negotiations began with the Eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) headed by Nigel Farage. In an online referendum, Five Star members voted to join the EFD in preference to remaining unaffiliated or joining the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group which includes the British Conservative Party.
In terms of ideology, the FSM is unusual in European politics due to its belief in direct democracy, seeing it as an evolution of representative democracy and arguing that citizens need more direct power to ensure governments are not dominated by corporate interests. Five Star also claims that a form of ‘collective intelligence’ is now possible through the internet and chooses its Italian and European election candidates online as well as the Five Star candidate for the Italian Presidency. Furthermore, legislative proposals are decided for Five Star members as was the decision to develop a partnership with UKIP and support for the abolition of a law against immigrants, something which went against the views of the leadership.
Five Star is very emphatic that ‘politics is not a career’ and any of its representatives must consider their role as a form of temporary service which they refer to as ‘zero cost politics’ and may include the reduction of salaries of some of its elected politicians. For example, in 2012 the Sicilian branch of Five Star used the money deducted from the salaries of their representatives to help small and medium-sized businesses. Five Star is also very clear that members with a criminal record can’t run for office, something that has prevented founder Beppe Grillo from running as he has a conviction for manslaughter following a car crash.
Five Star members through an online referendum and Grillo himself also back same-sex marriage and have backed a form of basic income which would amount to around 780 per person, dependent on some minimum number of hours worked every week. Perhaps more controversially the FSM has expressed some anti-immigrant rhetoric with Grillo claiming that illegal immigrants should be expelled and the Dublin regulations which allow asylum seekers to settle in the first safe country (which in the case of refugees from North Africa is usually Italy), while Luigi Di Maio has called for ‘an immediate stop to the sea-taxi service’ from North Africa and Italy.
Interesting times lay ahead for the new Italian government who face many challenges. With factors such as a sluggish economy, tricky relations with Brussels and an immigration crisis, it is unsurprising that many are predicting the unlikely coalition to be short-lived. Even so, as the most right-wing government since the fascist era, it could certainly reshape Italian politics.