Populism in Power: The Italian Case

The Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has recently announced his resignation after 14 months of the so-called Government of change.  This political crisis offers us the opportunity to turn our attention towards the parties forming ‘the first populist government of Western Europe’ – the Five Star Movement (5SM) and the (Northern) League (NL) – and, more specifically, to their particular political communication.

Political representatives of government usually provide declarations to the media in order to inform the public on what is the government’s political orientation and its goals for further reforms. Nevertheless, the current Italian government has showed a different approach towards the media, the opposition and its electorate, by providing conflicting declarations about immigration, the European Union, the economy, justice, and TAV (high-speed railway Turin-Lyon), hence providing a series of contradictory positions in order to satisfy both their traditional bases.

At the very beginning of this coalition, during Italian Republic Day (2 June 2018), the Minister for Family and Disability, Lorenzo Fontana, declared that “gay families do not exist. More children, fewer abortions”. After indignation by both LGBT associations and opposition forces, the response to these complaints from the representatives of the Conte cabinet was that “this is the personal opinion of the Minister Fontana”, or “his ideas are not in the Government contract”. Accordingly, if statements made by the politicians of 5SM and NL are not strictly linked to the official “Contract for a Government of Change”, is it fair to say that the government is not responsible for them? If any member of the government (e.g. minister, vice-minister or undersecretary) affirms something that has not been previously agreed between the parties allied, is it right that the government should remain completely extraneous to the institutional responsibility for which it was charged? The case of Minister Fontana is not isolated. There have been many other occasions in which controversial statements by government members have been justified as personal opinions which have anything to do with the government. These include:

These politicians do not represent only their political party, but they are also representatives of the Italian government. However, the government’s official message has been to dismiss outlandish statements as personal opinions that do not represent the government’s stance and therefore of no concern. The result is that 5SM and NL politicians benefit from being able to affirm everything and its opposite. It is a communication mechanism that allows 5SM and NL to be cohesive forces of government, but also to never betray their values (albeit radical and dichotomist). Therefore, if a minister or other high-profile member of the government makes controversial statements against LGBT rights, the impartiality of the judiciary branch, or migrant issues, all are considered personal opinions. As such, the Italian government is not responsible for what the members of the Conte cabinet say.

Unlike the 5SM, the ability to both govern and be the opposition is not new to the NL. This strategy was applied in previous centre-right coalitions where the NL had managed to have an important weight in the Berlusconi’s governments, but at the same time, could be seen as a “pure” party unrelated to the traditional establishment. Indeed, as Albertazzi and McDonnell (2005) state, ‘Lega not only managed to survive […], but succeeded in presenting itself simultaneously as both the opposition within government and a driving force behind high-profile areas of government policy’, by claiming its role as a political force in defence of the “people”. Today, the NL, as part of the yellow-green government, does not stray far from this communicative strategy, managing to appear both as a moderating force, (due to the experience of its local and regional politicians), and as a radical opposition movement against the elites within and outside the country.

When European populist radical right political parties occupy a leading role in their national governments, they tend to lose their ‘raison de être in the eyes of their supporters’; or these parties tend not to have  a significant influence towards  current European political systems. Yet, this last year showed that an expert populist radical right party, such as NL, could increase its political consensus playing a leading role in the government by keeping ‘one foot in and one foot out of institutions’. The NL – reaching 17% (third place) in the last legislative elections in 2018 – has made two significant impacts in the Italian political system. Firstly, it is leading the national political agenda, as both ally and opposition to the government; and secondly, it became the strongest party in the current centre-right coalition.

In conclusion, despite statements made by both 5SM and NL politicians are viewed as personal opinions by the electorate, the NL is the political party that most benefited by this communicative strategy (see the last Regional and European elections in 2019). Indeed, the NL’s political consensus has been kept through its exhausting communication aimed to be identified twofold by the electorate: as force of government and of opposition, showing how an established populist radical right political party, such as the NL, can achieve consensus even by governing.

Mr Alessio Scopelliti is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a doctoral candidate in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol. You can find his profile here.

© Alessio Scopelliti. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).