Populism and the Conundrums of Democracy in Italy

There is one pattern that characterizes post-Cold War Italy: new political figures emerge, espousing an anti-establishment rhetoric, but end up bringing the people more of the same. Whether the cause is the transformative power of Rome or just politics as usual, it points to the simple but decisive fact that all across the political spectrum people are hungry for fundamental change.

Niccolò Caranti / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

One feels this very strongly at the present time, as we approach the general election. The center-left Democratic Party’s leader, Matteo Renzi, known as the rottomatore (scrapper), emerged as a major political figure by challenging the establishment, but he failed to do so when he became the prime minister in 2014. The world-famous leader of the Forza Italia center-right party Silvio Berlusconi, a media mogul who during the 1990s, presented himself as the shining alternative to the corrupt Christian Democratic establishment. Berlusconi transformed Italian politics, making it definitely more volatile and arguably more corrupt. Renzi openly supports the European Union, and there is a widespread perception that Berlusconi is only paying lip-service to anti-establishment ideas. As a result, the establishment sees these two powerhouses of the center-left and the center-right as more amenable to a Europeanist agenda.

But, the fact that Berlusconi has entered into an election alliance with the right-wing Northern League complicates matters. The League is transforming itself from a regional anti-establishment party into a national one, with its rhetoric about immigration and Euroscepticism on the rise. To complete the picture, we must take note of the supposedly-left populist Five-Star Movement. This is yet another anti-establishment rottomatore. And, it is likely to garner the most votes, albeit with little prospect of entering into any governing coalition.

During the course of my fieldwork in northern Italy in 2011 and 2012, I had the chance to spend time with, talk with, and observe several members of the Northern League, some supporters of the Five-Star Movement, and several other northerners with diverse political leanings. They shared, almost to the point of consensus, a pessimism toward the Italian political system and the class of politicians as a whole, as well as a longing for fundamental change. The endlessly reiterated themes were corruption, the inability of politicians to take action and make decisions, and rising concern over immigration.

Yet again, we find ourselves asking, with Plato, whether democracy is doomed to produce tyranny, and Socrates sharing some of distaste for democracy because of the dangerous charm of the demagogue.
I found that three most common reactions to these concerns were to support the populist parties in their bid to create change, refrain from voting, or just keep voting along one’s usual ideological line out of fear of the barbarian populists. Given the pervasive malaise, I probably should not have been surprised to hear remarks that evoked nostalgia for the Mussolini era, if not for the Duce himself. Even some adherents of the center-left parties look wistfully at the many fascist era buildings that bespeak a bygone ability to get things done and the glory of the Italian people.

The polls indicate that no single party is likely to get enough votes to form a government, not even the center-right coalition, which includes Berlusconi and the Northern League. Yet again, the administration of Italy will be in the hands of a diverse and often fractious coalition likely to be formed in the corridors of Montecitorio Palace in Rome, and in Brussels as well. The possibility that either of the two populist parties will take part in the government haunts the Italian—and indeed the European—political establishment, both of which frame the election in the bogus terms of populists threatening to supplant liberal values. Indeed, finding ways to contain the populists has become the main concern of many academics and politicos. Post-election bargaining is likely to provide them with a perfect arena in which to forge a government that tows the Europeanist line or agenda.

Rumors are rife of a post-election alliance between the two less evil parties, Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia and Renzi’s center-left Democratic party. Such a coalition will carry Matteo Renzi to the office of prime minister, with Berlusconi playing the second fiddle during what might well be his last term in government, given his age and health issues. Such a pragmatic coalition is sure to make a mockery of election promises and to spell more of the same. This will also have detrimental consequences for the Northern League: its aspiring young leader could hardly convince the old wolves to embrace an Italianist agenda and to be one more time in harness with the hated Berlusconi. I believe, however, that post-Berlusconi Forza Italia is doomed to be eaten up by an increasingly Italianist League and the possible artificial coalition is likely to accelerate the process.

Once more we see the old conundrum illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism rearing their heads. We cannot underestimate the risk of authoritarianism once these populist parties are in power and backed by a majoritarian support—a risk especially for minorities and immigrants. Yet again, we find ourselves asking, with Plato, whether democracy is doomed to produce tyranny, and Socrates sharing some of distaste for democracy because of the dangerous charm of the demagogue. At the same time, leaving all public policy decisions to an elite who disdains the common sense of the majority is not appealing either.

The upcoming Italian elections are unlikely to put our minds to rest on such perennially vexed issues and they are even less likely to conclude the protracted crisis of Italian politics. They will neither end the much-hated status quo, nor give birth to a new one capable of pleasing everyone. But the ways in which the Italian and European establishments play the coalition game will determine if the crisis goes deeper, creating the conditions for a belated but more decisive triumph of the populists. I think Italy remains an apt laboratory for observing the populist rise and Gramsci’s definition of crisis: “The old is dying, and the new cannot be born.”

Sinan Celiksu is research fellow at the Max-Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.

Cite as: Celiksu, Sinan. 2018. “Populism and the Conundrums of Democracy in Italy.” Anthropology News website, February 28, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.785

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