How the populists have united Italy
Italy's coalition government includes, from left, Deputy PM and leader of la Lega, Matteo Salvini; the Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte; Deputy PM and leader of M5S, Luigi Di Maio; and Undersecretary for Prime Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti. Credit: Elisabetta Villa / Getty   

The scenes early this month at the Raduno della Lega (the annual convention of the Lega Nord), in Pontida in Northern Italy, were unprecedented – not because of the number or enthusiasm of the attendees, but because of how many of them came from the South of Italy.

Once the party of ‘Northern independence’, the far-right Lega built its identity in relation to the ‘otherness’ of the South. It portrayed itself as the defender of Northern industriousness and entrepreneurship against the predatory Roman government (referred to as Roma Ladrona, or ‘Rome the Thief’) and parasitic Southerners (called Terroni, a disparaging term for country folk). In Pontida, however, it seemed that the whole country was united behind the Lega. So what changed?

Thanks to Salvini’s political adroitness, the Lega has managed to seize the political agenda from its bigger coalition partner

Under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, the former secessionist movement for the rich Northern regions of Lombardia and Veneto has seen its national base grow exponentially. In March, after years spent in the political background, the party gained 17% of the votes – more than the former favourite, centre-right Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s party. Pretty impressive for a fringe movement that in the past struggled to reach double digits.

The Lega was not, however, the largest party in the last general election. That position was taken by the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S). The populist party founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in the aftermath of the financial crisis won around 30% of the votes.

Despite their vastly different political outlooks – M5S gathered significant support from disgruntled left-wing voters; the Lega is radically right-wing – the two parties eventually managed to find enough common ground to form an improbable coalition. Subsequently, thanks, mainly, to Salvini’s political adroitness, the Lega has managed to seize the political agenda from its bigger coalition partner, and is now level pegging with M5S at around 30%.

Matteo Salvini’s remarkable feat has been to turn the party from strictly ‘local’ movement, to a nationwide one, without alienating its traditional Northern base

Populist parties have been on the rise for a while across the West now. And it’s no real surprise that they have now achieved electoral success in Italy. The high unemployment, stagnant wages, dishonest politicians were the perfect conditions to drive Italian voters towards populism. Both the Lega and the M5S have triumphantly capitalised on this wave of discontent.

Matteo Salvini’s remarkable feat, though, has been to turn the party from strictly ‘local’ movement, to a nationwide one, without alienating its traditional Northern base. He did this by weaponising the migrant crisis. Even though the number of arrivals is diminished, the strain it is putting on the South has allowed Salvini to rebrand the Lega as a national party with an anti-immigration, Eurosceptic platform.

Its traditional values of family and Christianity remain the same, and have a certain universal appeal; but the party is no longer defined by the otherness of the South. Instead, North African immigrants are the ‘new’ Terroni, the EU institutions are the ‘new’ Roma Ladrona.

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Salvini now issues outrageous statements daily, proposing, for example, a census of all the Roma in Italy, expressing his disappointment that those with Italian nationality could not be kicked out, and characterising any critics as do-gooding hypocrites. Monopolising the media spotlight and silencing the opposition with ad-hominems has proven a winning strategy for the Lega.

The M5S has not been so successful. It positioned itself as an alternative to the corrupt Roman political class, the ‘establishment’, just as most populist movements across the West have done. Unlike those other populist parties, however, the M5S electoral base was not drawn solely from the extremes of the political spectrum. It came from the centre.

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The vagueness of its policies, and well-aimed attacks on the Italian ruling class, allowed M5S to perform well among the educated and moderate voters who would traditionally support establishment parties. Naturally, that base, has subsequently felt betrayed by its party’s association with the Lega. Internal squabbling and general incompetence, while the Lega appears coherent, organised and capable, has done nothing to assuage those worries.

M5S has fallen into the same trap that ultimately does for most traditional populist parties: having constructed its identity in opposition to the ‘establishment’, once it achieves its objective  it loses its meaning and momentum. Is is finding it difficult to transition from protest movement to governing force.

With the Right, in the form of the Lega, firmly at the political controls – and with Salvini as de facto prime minister – the centre-left, too, has lost meaning and momentum. It has done nothing to address the ‘identity crisis’ which led so many Italians to turn against it, the establishment, and vote in such numbers for the populists.

‘We will rule for 30 years!’ cheered Salvini at his rally in Pontida

In failing to address the key concerns of immigration and unemployment while in government, the Partito Democratico’s (the main centre-left party) support dwindled in its former strongholds of the South and Centre-North, and it lost its core electoral base.

The PD alienated young professionals by pandering to retirees and failed to protect struggling young families. It failed to promote policies that would modernise the sluggish Italian labour market in the context of reviving Italian entrepreneurship. It refused to pride itself on its association with European liberals. Most important of all, it fell short of providing its demographically varied electoral base with a shared identity, a shared language, which both the M5S and the Lega did so successfully. Nor does it look like it has any idea of how to address the crisis and respond to the concerns of public.

At the Lega’s annual convention, Salvini re-established the role of his party as, crucially, a party for the Italian people, a political force that had united the country and one that was prepared to defeat its European rivals. “We will rule for 30 years!” cheered Salvini at his rally in Pontida a few weeks ago – if the crisis of the Italian centre continues, this may well be true.