Italy’s national populists have suffered a major setback. At the regional elections last weekend, Matteo Salvini and his Right-wing alliance failed in their quest to capture the Left-wing fiefdom of Emilia-Romagna.
When all votes had been counted, the Right-wing alliance, which had hoped to use a shock victory to force fresh national elections, finished more than seven points behind the Left. It wasn’t even close.
For much of the past three years Salvini has seemed unstoppable. While the 46-year-old has at times miscalculated, like last summer when he tried and failed to bring down Italy’s shaky government, he has developed a potent message.
Strident opposition to immigration, refugees, Brussels and Rome, combined with a near-constant presence on social media, has transformed Lega from a northern separatist fringe party into a serious force that has swept southwards and into first place in the national polls.
But now Salvini has been stalled. Cue much talk about the decline of populism. “Peak Populism?” asked The Times in its leader, in the shadow of his defeat. It is not the first time this question has been asked, of course. In the aftermath of Marine Le Pen’s defeat to Emmanuel Macron in 2017, many observers drew the same conclusion; populism had finally been kicked into decline. But then it continued to consolidate across much of Europe, not only at the national level but also winning a record number of seats in the European Parliament last spring.
As in 2017, many see Salvini’s defeat in Emilia-Romagna as a crucial watershed; a line in the sand in the global debate about how to defeat populism. Bruised by their defeat in the Brexit wars, and anxious about a looming rematch with Donald Trump in November, liberal campaigners are rushing to draw lessons from the regional battle, or what Italy’s La Repubblica has branded Salvini’s “first defeat”.
Some are already arguing that the main takeaway is the need for mass mobilisation. Perhaps the most striking feature of the election is that, compared to the previous contest in 2014, turnout surged by 30 points.
Then comes the more specific counter-mobilisation in the form of the ‘Sardines’ movement, which sprung up in November to oppose Salvini and the Right-wing turn in Italian politics. The Sardines, named on account of the way in which they pack themselves into town squares, are already being hailed around the world as an antidote to populism. “An Italian flash mob just pushed back Europe’s populist tide“, reads a headline in The Atlantic.
But is this really the case? There is certainly no doubt that the vibrant, youth-led movement played a role but precisely how much of a role is up for debate. Compared to the last election the Left’s share of the vote only increased by 2-points. The Right’s jumped by nearly 14-points while Salvini and Lega walked away with a new record share of the vote, as did the ultra Right Brothers of Italy who saw their support jump more than four-fold.
The real story from Italy's election
Perhaps just as important, if not more so, was the collapse of the populist “neither Left nor Right” Five Star, whose leader, Luigi Di Maio, sensing the shifting winds, resigned only a few days before the election. In Emilia-Romagna support for Five Star crashed by 10-points and, crucially, much of this vote appears to have flowed over to the Left. This may yet have profound implications for Italian politics.
If Five Star continue to decline then the centre-Left may be the beneficiary as Italy becomes more polarised between Left and Right. Either way, the defection of Five Star voters to the Left arguably reflected not so much the discovery of a new liberal formula for fighting populism but more simply a governing populist party failing to manage the transition from being an outsider to an insider governing party.
Then there is the region’s long-established political tradition. Similar to Labour’s Red Wall in England and Wales, or the socialist strongholds in industrial France, Emilia-Romagna has long been dominated by the Left. In fact, for more than half a century this strong tribal loyalty and local culture made it virtually impossible for other challengers to breakthrough. This too helped the Left. But as in England, France and elsewhere, there are signs that the Left’s dominance is weakening and that national populists, rather than retreating, might actually be consolidating.
Salvini's plan to smash Italy's red wall
The writing has been on the wall for a while. Salvini and Lega took 19% in this region at national elections in 2018 and then nearly 34% at the European elections last year, along the way picking up a few victories in mayoral elections. And now they have a new record share of the vote at regional elections.
It all feels so familiar to those of us who have watched the Brexit wars. Lega’s gradual chipping away at the established parties remains me of UKIP’s gradual erosion of Labour majorities, which cleared the way for a wider assault on the Red Wall in 2019. I’m not saying that Italy is going to vote to leave the European Union but I am saying that sequencing in politics is important, and that it feels incredibly unlikely that Salvini and Lega have actually peaked.
On the contrary, Salvini and his movement appear to be consolidating. This is reflected not only in its record general election result in 2018, and then its strongest ever result at European elections in 2019, but also in a string of record results at regional elections in the past two years; the Aosta Valley, Abruzzo, Basilicata, Piedmont, Lombardy, Sardinia, South Tyrol, Trentino, Fruili-Venevia Giulia and the Left stronghold of Umbria. Emilia-Romagna now joins that list.
This is the story of how parties build support; bit by bit, district by district, some prominent victories mixed with some prominent defeats. While Salvini failed to breach the wall this time it is not hard to see how he and his allies might do so in the future, much like UKIP’s defeat in the Labour Party bastion of Heywood and Middleton paved the way for Boris Johnson and the Conservatives to eventually capture the seat in 2019. Salvini and his party have still led in every single poll since October 2018 and with an unstable government it seems likely that Italy will have elections sooner rather than later.
This is why I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that, contrary to the inevitable talk about the defeat of populism, Lega continues to emerge as a stable and permanent player in Italian politics. We should avoid sensationalist talk about peak populism and instead explore the deep-rooted currents that are pushing these movements forward; strong public distrust in politics and institutions; fears about the relative deprivation of one’s group compared to others in society; intense worries over both the pace and scale of immigration and social change; and the way in which our parties have been pushed into an era of ‘dealignment’, as the bonds between voters and established parties break down. None of these is going anywhere anytime soon.
In the shadow of yet another election in Europe, it feels as though while the Left has won a battle, it has still not figured out how to win the war. “Let’s start again,” tweeted Salvini as he boarded a train departing Emilia-Romagna. “He who hesitates is lost.”