Authoritarian Populism, Emancipatory Populism: The Italian Constitutional Referendum

The crisis of democracy is rising across Western countries because liberal societies have failed to deliver democracy’s most important pillars that it promised: legitimacy, representation, and sovereignty. Recent literature states that the rise of populism is one of the symptoms of this crisis. In this post, I reflect how populism impacts democracy. To accomplish this, I will start by discussing authoritarian and emancipatory populisms and, subsequently, I will illustrate my argument by turning to the constitutional referendum that was held in Italy on 20 and 21 September 2020. The referendum passed with almost 70% and it will reduce the number of current members of Italian Parliament from 630 to 400 in the Chamber of Deputies and from 315 to 200 in the Senate.

First of all, the term populism is overused nowadays. It is a catch-all word that can coexist with a variety of different ideologies, discourses, party strategies, or communicative strategies. Moreover, in the current mainstream political and press debates, it does exist a dominant approach addressing the concept of populism in a negative way. Nevertheless, as Hawkins and Kaltwasser argue, “despite the fact that there are good reasons for worrying about the rise of populism, scholars are probably putting too much emphasis on the downsides and thus not considering potential positive effects of populist forces”. As such, Bugaric distinguishes two different kinds of populism. On the one hand, there is an authoritarian populism, which mostly leads to a rise of racial prejudice and discrimination towards ethnic, and occasionally political, minorities; while, on the other hand, there is an emancipatory populism, which aims to challenge the status quo (even in a destructive way) in order to restore equality and social justice.

Studies on populism and radical-right parties have repeatedly pointed out how the former kind of populism contradicts the fundamental principles of liberal democracies through the repression of political rights and ethnic minorities in the name of an alleged pure majority supporting their cause. In fact, this kind of populism originates from a nostalgia of a mythological past of the 1960s (a white male dominated society). For instance, Republican Donald Trump’s presidential political campaign of 2016 significantly pushed about fighting illegal immigration and multiculturalism through his most famous slogan “Make America Great Again”. Moreover, once populist forces consolidate power, they usually have an opportunistic approach towards democracy. These kind of authoritarian populist parties express extreme forms of majoritarianism that allow them to strengthen the majoritarian institutions at the expense of opposing forces. For instance, governing populist parties would reinforce the executive branch in order to make their administrations more “efficient” (such as Fidesz in Hungary or Law and Justice in Poland) or they would encourage the use of referendums as a strategy to easily marginalise the oppositions (such as the Five Stars Movement in Italy).

Nevertheless, there are also studies on populism and radical-left parties, which can refer to the concept of emancipatory populism. This second type of populism is characterised by a critic against the corrupted elites coming from established political parties combined with capitalism through a steady endorsement towards “socially liberal attitudes, left-wing economic policies and participatory styles of engagement”. This type of populism is surging in both European and Anglo-Saxon countries through parties like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain that attacked the European bureaucratic elites’ policy of austerity after the 2008 economic crisis; movements from the civil society like the environmental movement initiated by Greta Thunberg who is challenging world leaders and multinational companies responsible for global change; or political leaders from the USA like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who is opposing big pharmaceutic companies rising drug prices.

The Italian constitutional referendum is unequivocally the product of Italian populism. This referendum is an initiative of the Five Stars Movement (5SM), which goal was to fight ‘la casta(the caste) and to open ‘il Parlamento come una scatoletta di tonno’ (to open Parliament like a can of tuna). This referendum was also pivotal to make a political alliance between the Democratic Party and the 5SM in order to support the second Conte Cabinet. Moreover, although this constitutional referendum was initially proposed only by the 5SM, it was supported also by the rest of the current Italian government (established left-wing parties) and by the right-wing coalition from the opposition. Since the imminent constitutional referendum has populist roots, will it be positive or not for Italian democracy? The reasons in support of the referendum are twofold. Firstly, the reduction of deputies and senators will not undermine the level of representativeness when this is compared with other European countries with similar number of population (see Figure 1 below). Moreover, regional representatives (which are elected since 1970) will ensure a balanced level of representation.

Source: Corriere TV available from here:

Secondly, Italian politics suffered a dramatic phenomenon of disenchantment and distrust towards the Italian parliament. Hence, the constitutional referendum aims to demonstrate that politicians do listen to the needs of the people and they are available to reduce the caste in order to reinforce trust towards institutions. On the other hand, reasons against the referendum concern, first of all, a deeper detachment between the member of parliament (MP) and his/her own electorate. If this constitutional reform will pass, Italy will become the EU country with the lowest number of deputies in relation to the population (0.7 per 100,000 inhabitants); and, secondly, this reform might indirectly reinforce the limitation of mandate of MPs. Indeed, with the current electoral law (closed lists) where each political party can pre-decide who will be the candidates, it will be more likely that the MPs will vote in the parliament following their political party’s orientation rather than following their own opinion in order to be confirmed for the next elections.

As I see it, this reform aims to solve the gap of trust between electorate and institutions which was caused by the inefficiency and corruption of Italian political elite. However, although the goal of this referendum is to solve the crisis of Italian democracy, this is unlikely to happen. I think that the constitutional referendum can be seen as an outcome of authoritarian populism. Indeed, it is more likely that this reform will reinforce the majoritarian institutions giving more decisional power in the hands of only 200 Senators who will have the power to grant or revoke confidence to the Italian government and will be more tied to their political party’s decisions.

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