Is Italian right-wing populism in decline?

Lega members congratulate  Matteo Salvini  after he addressed the Senate on February 12, 2020 in Rome (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP) (Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images)

On February 12 2020, the Senate chamber of the Italian Parliament approved the go-ahead to revoke parliamentary immunity for the former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini – leader of the Italian populist radical-right League – in order to be tried on the Gregoretti case. Matteo Salivini is accused for abuse of power and for kidnapping 135 immigrants, including 15 minors. These people were rescued by Italian coastguard ship Gregoretti and, under protection of the Italian authorities, Salvini stopped them from landing on Italian territory. The main reason for this decision from the then Interior Minister was to bargain with the European Union the relocation of these migrants outside of Italy. As he declared on Twitter on July 26 2019: “Non darò nessun permesso allo sbarco finché dall’Europa non arriverà l’impegno concreto ad accogliere tutti gli immigrati a bordo della nave.” (I will not give any permission to disembark until Europe proves a concrete commitment to take all immigrants from the ship.”). Because of this controversial political decision, by refusing to let 135 rescued refugees dock in Italian ports for 6 days, Matteo Salvini faces a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

This scenario offers us the opportunity to ask: can the Gregoretti case be the beginning of the end for both his political career and his leading position in the party? Moreover, considering the fundamental role of the party’s leader in the populist radical-right parties, if Matteo Salvini is sentenced, could it be the start of the decline for the League, as it happened to Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Forward Italy) when he was sentenced to 3 years for bribing an Italian senator? Ultimately, could this bring the decline of the populist radical right-wing in Italy? So far, it certainly does not seem so.

For one thing, as Hans-Georg Betz wrote in one of his later articles for CARR, the League is the only populist radical-right party that has been benefitting from the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe. Furthermore, according to the latest electoral polls, the League is still the first party in Italy, steady at 28% of consensus. However, and despite the League’s high popularity, the party might follow its leader’s judiciary fate. If the leader falls, the rest of the party might fall with him (as it already happened with the previous League’s leader, Umberto Bossi).

Italy, as other Western democracies, is founded on key institutions and values of liberal democracy, such as civil rights, defence of minority groups, press autonomy and respect of independent courts. For that reason, if a President of Republic, a Prime Minister or a Minister does not respect the rule of law, he/she can be banned to run for public offices and be prosecuted. Accordingly, worldwide constitutional law shows that extreme measures may be implemented in order to ban politicians when they commit a crime or political parties or when they show a clear antagonism towards the democratic regime. For instance, in Brazil, where the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison for corruption; or in both Germany and Italy (legal tradition) where if political parties explicitly oppose the principles of constitution, they get banned.

At first glance, the simple application of the rule of law in democratic regimes might be seen as an automated way to defeat the imminent rise of radical parties. Yet this might change depending on the circumstances. Illustratively, if the populist radical right political party gains the absolute majority of the national parliament, it has the power to apply constitutional reforms and change the current regime from a liberal democracy to an illiberal democracy. This is the case of some Central and Eastern European countries like Hungary and Poland, in which cases the strong leaders of populist radical right parties, such as Viktor Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczyński, have begun to put pressure towards independent media, violating civil rights and undermining the independency of judiciary. In addition, the popularity of populist radical right parties tends to rise in Western European countries as well.

Taking this into consideration, is the rise of populist radical right parties inevitable? What might defeat the populist radical right parties? The French Presidential election of the recent past of 2017 might be a good example of how democracy can defeat radical-right populism. In 2017, Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique En Marche (Republic Onwards!) won against Marine Le Pen’s Front National (National Front) at both presidential and legislative elections. Despite the fact that the French electorate was considerably disenchanted towards established liberal forces at that time, and that the National Front had a longer political experience than Republic Onwards!, Emmanuel Macron was capable to pursuit a convincing political campaign by proposing distinctive political goals in contrast with his political challenger.

Could it be, then, that the fearless electoral competition the solution is needed to defeat radical right populism? Instead of hiding behind the cordon sanitaire by excluding populist radical-right parties from the democratic competition or relying on judges’ intervention to ban fierce rivals, perhaps it would be the case for liberal parties to face up to the issues proposed by the populist radical right parties and find alternative solutions. Eventually, as the French case showed in 2017, the only way to defeat radical-right populism could simply be through a clear political party competition.

Mr Alessio Scopelliti is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate in School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. See 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).