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by Thomas Fazi
Thursday, 7
October 2021

The media is wrong: Italian populism will be back

Even the anti-establishment parties are now seen as too mainstream
by Thomas Fazi
Fratelli d’Italia Leader Giorgia Meloni in Rome. Credit: Getty

Last weekend, Italians went to the polls to vote for around 1,200 mayors, which included major cities such as Rome, Milan, Turin, Bologna and Naples. The pro-EU, liberal-centrist Democratic Party (PD) — by any definition, the party of the establishment — won by a big margin in Bologna, Milan and Naples, and is also projected to win in the upcoming runoffs in Rome and Turin.

For most mainstream commentators, the results mean only one thing: that “Italy has turned its back on anti-establishment politics”, as The Times writes, echoing similar takes in the Italian press. But is this really the case?

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A closer look at the numbers reveals a much less comforting reality. First of all, fewer citizens than ever went to vote: 55% of all eligible voters — the lowest turnout ever (20%, or 400,000 people, less than the last local elections). In other words, one in two voters decided to stay at home. In some cities, turnout in some high-income neighbourhoods was 30% higher than in low-income neighbourhoods.

And while PD came on top, it still lost more than 120,000 votes compared to the last local elections, held in 2016. This is not a case of voters shifting their support from “anti-establishment” parties to the PD. It’s a case of a huge number of former voters of those parties — particularly the Five Star Movement and the League — simply staying at home. It’s frankly very hard to see how this could be seen as evidence that Italians are turning their back on anti-establishment politics.

In fact, I would posit that it’s evidence of the exact opposite: voters have turned their back on those parties precisely because they have betrayed their anti-establishment ethos. The Five Star Movement and the League, after all, came out on top in the last national elections, in 2018, on a staunchly “populist”, “anti-establishment” and anti-EU platform. That election was a huge rebuke of the establishment — embodied by the Democratic Party at the national level and the EU at the supranational level, which by then had overseen disastrous austerity and neoliberal “structural reforms” for over half a decade.

The last thing those millions of voters could have imagined is that, within a few years, both those parties would be governing hand in glove with the PD in support of a government led by the literal incarnation of the establishment, Mario Draghi. In this sense, the record-low turnout in the latest elections should be understood as an equally loud rebuke of the parties that betrayed that promise of change.

It’s no surprise that the only party to significantly bolster its votes is Brothers of Italy, which is also the only major party that doesn’t support Draghi’s government of “national unity” (it’s also now topping the polls).

Anti-establishment politics in Italy is not dead — it’s simply lost any serious political avenue. Which is why an increasing number of citizens — especially among the lower ranks of society — are turning their backs on democracy. As Italy’s economic and social crisis continues to simmer under the surface, one thing is clear: anti-establishment anger is soon bound to make a comeback. The question is: if no party is there to channel that anger, what form will it take?

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James Joyce
James Joyce
1 year ago

Why would it be “comforting” if Italian (and other) voters turn their back on anti-establishment politics? I would find it comforting if Italian and other voters turned “populist,” throwing out professional politicians who have presided over the decline of Italy, the United States, the West, writ large.
I find nothing comforting about this continuing, (inexorable?) decline. The ruling class has been a complete failure–look at Biden. Nothing comforting there.

Matty D
Matty D
1 year ago

National populism is the definition of an empty vessel. It makes a lot of noise, but there is nothing there. It is all about the ‘other’. It has no idea how to deal with the realities of the modern world, and when it ever gets into government, its parties follow the solution led pursued by the “establishment “ parties. As it is in Italy, so it is in Britain. A government that governs in vacuous slogans that mean little and no policy substance.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Matty D

You are correct, but even so, populism becomes more prevalent when the mainstream parties stop listening to their constituents.

robert stowells
robert stowells
1 year ago

I have had some thoughts on this and would like to record chronology (to me this sort of questioning is warranted-there has to be some explanation for the madness):
1)     Around February 11 2020 I came down with a flu virus after having visited Malta.  I had had the flu jab so was surprised but did not make the link that what I was experiencing was COVID (which I now believe it was). 
2)     I joined Unherd in 2021, about 1 year after having experienced COVID, and recorded my experience of COVID sytmptoms in comments on an article by Tom Chivers (refer to my comments on Chivers’ article which record my account). In the comments to the Chivers article I hinted as to whether Italy had made some sort of deal to be a centre of COVID in return for having their national debt payed which were my thoughts at the time.
3)     After writing my comments on Chivers’ article referred to above I read the later recent article by Thomas Fazi and commented on it (refer comments regarding Italy being at forefront of COVID in return to contributions to their national debt).  This later article by Fazi related to Italy once more suddenly being at the forefront of COVID developments in relation to COVID passports and I wondered once more as to whether Italy were making some sort of trade off in offering themselves to be the centre of COVID development in return for the repayment of national debt.
4)     I was interested in the articles of Fazi and so looked back to find that in early 2020 a few months into COVID (before I had joined Unherd) he had written a rather extreme article regarding “neoliberalism” stating that he believed that nations could simply print money to get themselves out of debt. This was pretty much derided and dismissed in the comments on the article. Also why would an Italian commentator talk so freely of the inconsequence of printing money when it was not possible for Italy to do so as a member of the EU? However, I see the article by Fazi regarding the printing of money as perhaps an attempt to lessen his own conscience that his own government had potentially offered itself up to be a centre of COVID breakout in return for America or China paying off the Italian national debt. Perhaps the government of Italy at the time would even see the trade-off of subjecting the Italian nation to something that was no more than a moderate to severe flu as a “no brainer” and they were toasting their good luck at the time.
5)     Most recently Fazi wrote the present article about his optimism that Italy would regain their “populist” movement. Again I see this article as perhaps being an attempt by the writer to perhaps again ease his own conscience in saying that despite having twice been bailed out by foreign nations to erase Italian debt in return for COVID favours, such printing of money as was used to pay their national debt was trivial and had no consequence, and that Italy had in no way sold out and would return with their “populist” movements and tradition.
6)     Again while I have singled Italy as having potentially been part of some global trade off in COVID, clearly COVID has been a global phenomenon so I would expect there to have been several other nations, even the UK, as having been involved in some sort of trade off sell out. If I am correct about Italy, Italy is certainly not alone. 

Last edited 1 year ago by robert stowells