Back­grounder: Ten­sions in Italy

Italy’s re­cent gen­eral elec­tion saw anti-es­tab­lish­ment par­ties rid­ing the crest of a pop­ulist surge, and the rift be­tween north and south grow­ing ever wider. Two his­to­ri­ans of­fer their views on a po­lit­i­cally frac­tured na­tion

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Com­piled by Chris Bowlby, a BBC jour­nal­ist spe­cial­is­ing in his­tory

The 2018 elec­tions in Italy have marked the emer­gence of a deep po­lit­i­cal frac­ture be­tween the north and the south, epit­o­mised by the de­ci­sive suc­cess of the cen­tre-right coali­tion in north­ern re­gions, and the sim­i­larly de­ci­sive vic­tory of the Five Star Move­ment (M5S) in south­ern ones. In Veneto, Lom­bardy, Fri­uli-Venezia Gi­u­lia and Pied­mont, the cen­tre-right ob­tained well above 40 per cent of the vote, while the Five Star Move­ment matched that fig­ure in all the south­ern re­gions.

The suc­cess of the M5S is per­haps the great­est novelty of these elec­tions, ex­ploit­ing a sense that the south has been left be­hind in re­cent decades – or, in­deed, ever since the uni­fi­ca­tion of Italy in the 19th cen­tury. While in the post­war pe­riod, the ‘South­ern Ques­tion’ be­came prom­i­nent, with suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments seek­ing to in­dus­tri­alise this area, such ob­jec­tives ground to a halt in the 1980s due to the mount­ing debt of the state-hold­ing com­pa­nies that had in­vested in the south, and the clo­sure of many plants in the face of in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion.

Then the early 1990s saw the emer­gence of the ‘North­ern Ques­tion’, with a new party – the Lega Nord – able to rep­re­sent the needs of a large part of the north­ern elec­torate, par­tic­u­larly around tax­a­tion. In­deed, for the last 20-odd years, the Lega has shifted the bal­ance of power in favour of the north – not least in terms of re­sources – forc­ing the other par­ties to ap­peal to that same part of the coun­try. Now the 2018 elec­tions mark a turn­ing point, with the south­ern elec­torate cast­ing their votes to dif­fer­en­ti­ate their de­mands and needs from those of the north, in ways which can no longer be ig­nored.

Study­ing the data helps us to un­der­stand how the gap be­tween the north and the south has grown in re­cent decades. If we look at poverty, 30 per cent of the south­ern pop­u­la­tion be­longs to the poor­est fifth, as op­posed to 11.5 per cent in the north. The rate of em­ploy­ment is 66 per cent in the north but only 43 per cent in the south. Pub­lic in­vest­ment in the south has de­creased con­stantly since the 1970s. Sim­i­larly, in­vest­ment in in­fras­truc­ture de­creased from 1990 to 2012 in the south, while in the years of the Ber­lus­coni gov­ern- ments it in­creased in the cen­tre-north.

In the M5S’s suc­cess­ful cam­paign­ing in the south, the theme of re­newal (es­pe­cially moral and po­lit­i­cal re­newal) has been the most prom­i­nent. The idea of eco­nomic mod­erni­sa­tion is viewed with sus­pi­cion by this party, which has taken on board var­i­ous anti-growth ideas. And the vote for the M5S in the south also in­di­cated a turn­ing back from old-style clien­telist and cor­rupt forms of pol­i­tics. How­ever, some com­men­ta­tors doubt how far old habits have changed, be­rat­ing the M5S’s prom­ise to in­tro­duce a min­i­mum in­come for all – which proved es­pe­cially at­trac­tive in the south­ern part of the coun­try – as a new ver­sion of elec­toral bribery. And it re­mains to be seen whether tra­di­tional power struc­tures and net­works in the south will suc­ceed in in­flu­enc­ing and ‘do­mes­ti­cat­ing’ the M5S.

Ital­ian pol­i­tics can ap­pear chaotic at times, while Ital­ian so­ci­ety has seem­ingly be­come used to de­vel­op­ing in­de­pen­dently of po­lit­i­cal trends. Per­haps more im­por­tantly, when­ever chaotic pol­i­tics has pre­vailed, it has se­verely limited Italy’s in­flu­ence at both EU and wider

in­ter­na­tional lev­els.

In the re­cent elec­tions Italy’s Five Star Move­ment have ex­ploited a sense that the south of the coun­try has been left be­hind in re­cent decades PRO­FES­SOR ANNA BULL

Among the ma­jor fac­tors in the re­cent elec­tion was the refugee emer­gency – with many thou­sands of refugees ar­riv­ing in Italy in re­cent years – and the high level of un­em­ploy­ment ag­gra­vated by EU-led aus­ter­ity. This en­abled newer move­ments to at­tract part of the work­ing-class vote, which his­tor­i­cally would have gone to the left. Re­cently, cen­tre-left par­ties, such as Mat­teo Renzi’s Demo­cratic Party, have been mov­ing to­wards the cen­tre and of­ten em­brac­ing ne­olib­er­al­ism (this is also a Euro­pean trend). The Democrats pre­sented them­selves in the lat­est elec­tion as the party of ‘sta­bil­ity’ and es­sen­tially ‘what Europe wants’. This was a huge fail­ure, and proved their mis­un­der­stand­ing of protest votes and anti-EU feel­ings across Europe. Newer move­ments were able to at­tract much of the youth vote, with the Lega Nord al­most mo­nop­o­lis­ing the vote in the north, and the Five Star Move­ment dom­i­nat­ing the south.

So, are these move­ments en­tirely new, or do they have links with the Ital­ian po­lit­i­cal past? There is a long his­tory of anti-pol­i­tics and ex­trem­ism in Italy. Italy in­vented the term ‘ fas­cism’ in the 1920s and has never had a full reck­on­ing af­ter the war with its racist past un­der Ben­ito Mus­solini. Un­til the 1980s, Italy had the most suc­cess­ful west­ern neo-fas­cist party: the Ital­ian So­cial Move­ment (MSI). And to­day, the Broth­ers of Italy move­ment, cam­paign­ing for a ‘pure’ na­tional iden­tity, sees it­self in the MSI tra­di­tion.

But newer po­lit­i­cal forces and styles have also come to the fore in re­cent decades, re­flect­ing change in Ital­ian and Euro­pean so­ci­ety. In the 1990s, Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni ar­rived on the scene, a me­dia ty­coon and cre­ator of the Forza Italia party, who led four gov­ern­ments, while be­ing plagued with al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion and sex scan­dals. He rep­re­sented a ‘text­book’ com­bi­na­tion of pop­ulism, dem­a­goguery, post-truth and me­dia pol­i­tics. And he was suc­cess­ful at cre­at­ing and merg­ing par­ties, and re­shap­ing al­liances that in­cluded both lib­er­als and the far right.

Ber­lus­coni is still present in Ital­ian pol­i­tics, but no longer so in­flu­en­tial. It is hard to de­scribe his legacy. In some ways, to­day’s de­vel­op­ments are the out­come of Ber­lus­con­ism as a wider po­lit­i­cal cul­ture. His ten­ure led to a fur­ther le­git­imi­sa­tion of rightwing ex­trem­ism. The idea that the leader has a link with the com­mon cit­i­zen, and that the or­di­nary peo­ple are bet­ter than the elites, was also high­lighted by the first Ber­lus­coni surge. And these are still pop­u­lar themes with suc­cess­ful Ital­ian par­ties to­day.

But the real win­ners of the lat­est elec­tion also show newer fea­tures, re­spond­ing to de­vel­op­ments in the last few years such as the refugee and Eu­ro­zone crises. The M5S is ac­tu­ally a prod­uct of the mod­ern so­cial­me­dia age, emerg­ing from dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the fail­ures of the tra­di­tional par­ties. The North­ern League was a long-term ally of Ber­lus­coni, but is now elec­torally sur­pass­ing him. It started as a re­gion­al­ist group, but has now adopted a gen­uine far­right, anti-EU, anti-im­mi­grant agenda. In this sense, ‘pop­ulism’ alone does not ex­plain the rise, nor is it the main fea­ture, of such groups.

The Democrats pre­sented them­selves in the lat­est elec­tion as the party of ‘sta­bil­ity’ and es­sen­tially ‘what Europe wants’. This was a huge fail­ure DR AN­DREA MAMMONE

Anna Bull is pro­fes­sor of Ital­ian his­tory and pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of Bath

Sup­port­ers give their back­ing to M5S dur­ing a cam­paign meet­ing in Rome. Luigi Di Maio’s party proved pop­u­lar among vot­ers who felt the south was be­ing over­shad­owed by the more pros­per­ous north

Protestors on the streets of Mi­lan demon­strate against the rise of rightwing pop­ulism, Fe­bru­ary 2018

Ben­ito Mus­solini’s Fas­cists were part of a long his­tory of ex­treme pol­i­tics in Italy

Dr An­drea Mammone is a his­to­rian of mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary Europe at Royal Hol­loway, Univer­sity of Lon­don

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.