March 4, 2019

Where is Sardinia? ‘In the Mediterranean’ would be an uncontroversial answer; ‘in Italy’ rather less so. Graffiti can sometimes be seen on the island reminding tourists that they are not in Italy.

Sardinia is certainly a place apart. The Sardinian language, for instance, is most definitely not a dialect of Italian – and contains linguistic traces of a pre-Latin past.

And, yet, for all its differences from the mainland, what happened in Sardinia’s recent regional election is of great relevance to Italian politics – and indeed to populist politics across the western world.

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Only last year, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement won a famous victory in the Italian general election. It came first with nearly a third of the vote. In Sardinia it did even better, claiming more than 40 per cent of the vote.

But as Ferdinando Giugliano explains in piece for Bloomberg, Five Star’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse:

“The populist party’s candidate finished in an embarrassing third place in a regional vote in Sardinia this week. Five Star didn’t even manage to reach 10 percent of the vote, leaving it behind the League, its right-wing government coalition partner, and the center-left Democratic Party. The scale of the defeat was astonishing.”

Nor is this an isolated incident:

“…the scale of the defeat in Sardinia was remarkable. It comes after an equally distressing third place just a couple of weeks ago in Abruzzo, another southern region that had also backed Five Star in large numbers in the general election.”

Furthermore, these regional elections confirm trends seen in national opinion polls.

In the aftermath of the 2018 general election, Five Star formed a coalition government with the third placed party, Lega – ‘the League’.

Both are populist parties, but of very different kinds. Five Star is a broad-tent party attracting support from Left, Right and centre. It is (or was) especially popular among young people and in southern Italy, Sicily and Sardinia. The League, on the other hand, is a populist party of the hard Right, and its heartland is northern Italy. While Five Star built its appeal on a platform of participatory politics and direct democracy, the League is much more about the tough-guy image of its charismatic leader, Matteo Salvini.

The conventional wisdom is that the stresses and strains of coalition government are hardest on the junior partner(s). But not in Italy. Polls show Five Star in decline, while the League has nearly doubled its support, becoming the leading party. It has extended its base across the country, and other centre-Right and Right-wing parties are falling into its orbit – providing alternative coalition partners, should the need arise.

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These developments are of relevance beyond Italy, because Five Star signalled hope that populism doesn’t have to be extremist – ideally it should be broadly centrist and enthusiastically democratic and yet pose a much-needed challenge to a failing political and economic establishment.

For those of us who want change, but not extremism, the decline of Five Star is bad news.

Where did the movement go wrong? This is Giugliano’s diagnosis:

“The collapse of Italy’s arch-populists was, in many ways, inevitable. They made far too many promises, which were always going to be impossible to meet. A protest party with no real experience of power, Five Star has struggled to fill government jobs with suitable candidates. The League, which has been around for three decades, has a deeper bench and can come across as the experienced coalition partner.”

The League has also made some rather ‘ambitious’ promises. Populists like to offer what the people want – which, inevitably, is higher spending and lower taxes. For a while, one can square the circle with more borrowing, but not so much when the Eurozone authorities control your currency and can veto your budget.

When populists of the hard Right or hard Left run up against reality they can retreat into nationalist or class war rhetoric. No such comfort zone for the populists of the centre, however – their stock-in-trade is pure anti-establishmentarianism, which doesn’t work so well when you are the establishment.

If centrist populism is to have any future, it needs to avoid the trap that Five Star fell into. Instead of promising “six impossible things before breakfast” it should focus instead on dismantling some very real vested interests.

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The problem with the economic status quo is not that spending is too low or taxes too high, but that too much of the nation’s prosperity is captured by public and private sector interest groups who contribute too little in return.

Going after the rentiers, monopolists and lobbyists will produce many more winners than losers – and thus a sustainable basis for real change.