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
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
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