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Italy

Italy’s post-war political system is not new to dramatic government changes and sudden reversals of fortunes. The experience of the first populist experiment in government thus far is no exception. The elections of March 4th, 2018, were nothing short of a political earthquake. The most dramatic result was the success of the Five Star Movement (M5S). The political formation, created by comedian-turned-guru Beppe Grillo and led by his former lieutenant Luigi Di Maio, became the strongest party in Parliament with 32.7% of votes, wooing voters away from Matteo Renzi’s PD. On the right, the League took over Berlusconi’s Forza Italia as the main political party, winning over 17% of votes. This ‘sorpasso’ emboldened Salvini to break with the electoral pact …

The Five Star Movement is one of the most interesting political ‘experiments’ on political landscape of Western democracies. Once again Italy, which with Berlusconi has experienced Trumpism before Donald Trump, is a political laboratory for novel political phenomena that the world looks at, with a mixture of concern and excitement, to learn something about the future of our democratic systems. Only five years ago Beppe Grillo, a stand-up comedian and the founder of the Five Star Movement (M5S), launched his parole guerriere (warlike words) and M5S obtained a remarkable 25% of the national vote in its first electoral showing. Italian voters again expressed loudly and clearly their preference for the Five Star Movement in last weekend’s general election. The M5S not …

Over two decades have passed since Silvio Berlusconi announced his entry into politics in 1994. Since then, the Italian centre-left coalition has had a half-dozen leaders and has changed its name three times, Italy has seen the first Pope to resign in the history of the Catholic Church and witnessed the first re-election of a president in Italian democracy. Despite all of this, the “jaguar” – more famous for his eccentric metaphors, myriad scandals and oftentimes over-the-top theatrics than for his political achievements – is still there.[1] And, if we consider the Italian electoral system, Berlusconi will be there in the near future. The highly controversial Rosatellum bis – the new Italian electoral law approved by both the centre-left and …

Over the last decades, populism and technocracy have attracted a great deal of public attention and generated a lively scholarly debate. As it has recently been argued, they have emerged as the two dominant discourses on the European political scene. As the 2014 European elections clearly showed, even traditional, mainstream political parties increasingly rely on either or both these narratives. One insightful example is the discursive practices of Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party during the Italian electoral campaign. After his rise as party leader and then Italy’s youngest ever Prime Minister, Renzi has become a favourite of the international press. As early as 2010, when he was still mayor of Florence, the Tuscan politician proved himself an extremely skilled communicator. His idea of ‘rottamare’ (‘scrapping’) the entire political class had an extremely wide impact on public opinion and soon became a slogan for all those who wanted to contest the status quo in Italian politics. The growing support he received from the public convinced him to run for his party’s leadership primaries in 2012 and then, successfully, in 2013. Nowadays, Renzi’s PD embodies an arguably renewed organisation. The internal opposition has been gradually marginalised and the re-compacted majority has developed a political discourse based on pragmatism, hope for the future and the need for change. In particular, one can observe how the PD has gradually assimilated populist and technocratic discursive strategies by examining the ways in which it deals with a key issue such as the European Union. The populist mode. According to a growing body of literature, typical examples of populist discursive practices include the reliance upon Manichean oppositions, romanticised and essentialist visions of the people, appeals to the multitude whilst excluding others and extreme simplification and moralisation (Wodak 2003).

Leading the Italian left has never been an easy task. After the collapse of democratic centralism (i.e. the Leninist practice which obliged the membership to uphold any leader’s decision following an internal discussion), leadership has soon become the Achilles’ heels of the Italian former communists. Party secretaries have been weakened by the rising power of internal factions, used as scape-goats after electoral defeats and blamed for both lack of charisma (Pierluigi Bersani) and excessive protagonism (Massimo D’Alema and especially Matteo Renzi himself). Moreover, the presidential leadership style of its eternal enemy, Silvio Berlusconi, made the Italian PD (Democratic Party) rather unenthusiastic toward the trends of personalisation and presidentialisation spreading all over Europe. It is not by chance that the Berlusconian model always comes up when discussing Renzi’s personality and politics. Internal opponents and critical observers denounce Renzi’s simplified language and slogans, as well as his post-ideological appeal and charismatic governance. He is even often described as the son of Berlusconi, in the same way that Tony Blair was once called the son of Thatcher. Albeit controversial, Renzi’s personalized approach seems to have played a key-role in his rise to power. Studies conducted among the delegates at the 2013 Party Conference show that the party’s majority backed him in virtue of his personal characteristics and leadership skills rather than political message. Moreover, whereas the 2012 delegates expected the at-that-time-leader Bersani to promote a process of identity reconstruction and grassroots’ institutionalization, the 2013 Conference asked Renzi for concrete strategies to win the next General Elections (Martocchia Diodati 2014).

The general election has put the Italian Left in a state of shock. In December, the coalition led by Pierluigi Bersani had a fifteen points lead in the polls, while more than three million people turned up to vote in the leadership primary election. But last week’s election made that seem a long time ago. The final vote produced a new political reality: a hung parliament and the bitterest defeat for the Left in 20 years. The vote spelled frustration at a whole generation of politicians. The parties which stood for parliament in 2008 collectively lost roughly 13 million votes. The centre-right parties lost more than half of their votes (about nine millions), even though Berlusconi managed a spectacular comeback by leading an unapologetic campaign. It proves that he can still dominate the debate. Mario Monti’s centrist coalition intercepted a further 2.5 million votes, mainly from the centre-right. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, lost 3.5 million votes compared to the last election, which also resulted in defeat. After months of successes in local elections and in the polls, the party portrayed itself as the only responsible force in a country in disarray. But just like Neil Kinnock in 1992, Bersani took the victory for granted. He ran a political campaign where the main objective seemed to reassure the party militants that a victory was finally at hand.

The Italian left, heirs to the strongest communist party in Western Europe and a powerful Catholic political tradition, is struggling to adjust its values and political agenda to the new needs and constrains of the modern globalised world. As the Democratic Party seems set to win Italy’s general elections next year, and thus take control of the third largest economy of the Eurozone, such ideological adjustment is now particularly urgent.

When an economic crisis combines high youth unemployment and an impoverished middle class, there is a real risk of a rise in right-wing extremism. But the left/right divide does not always help to understand European populism. The Italian case is a particularly interesting one. After Berlusconi resigned in disgrace, the main two parties (Berlusconi’s People of Freedom-PDL and the centre-left Democratic Party-PD) were left with no choice but to support a ‘truce government’ of non-politicians and technocrats, led by Mario Monti. This unlikely arrangement froze the parliamentary majority.