Everywhere from Paris to London, Brussels to Lisbon, people want an opinion about Italian politics. This is not something new. Being Italian, you get used to this kind of curiosity about the country’s peculiar political scene. Ever since Silvio Berlusconi’s first victory in the early 1990s and up to the last general election, which saw a victory of two extremist parties, Lega Nord (Northern League) and the Five Star Movement (M5S), Italy has always represented a special case in modern politics.
Why so? In the last 10 years, we have witnessed the rise of right-wing parties all across Europe, from Hungary to Poland, as well as the impressive number of ballots won by the National Front in France to Brexit in the UK. Despite signs of a resurgent extreme right (and, in some cases, even neo-fascist organizations) in the West, including Donald Trump’s electoral upset in the US, Italy remained an interesting case for two reasons.
First, there was the disappearance of Partito Democratico (Democratic Party, PD) — the strongest leftist party in Europe. After almost 20 years of pursuing a liberalist agenda consisting of privatization of public services and cutting social expenses, the PD took less than the 20% at the last general election.
Second, Italy is the country where fascism was invented and celebrated under Benito Mussolini, and where the first purely populist, revisionist, right-wing coalition came to power under Berlusconi.
In the 20th century, Italy was perceived as a land where democratic institutions were built by bargaining between the Communist Party and the Christian Democrats, who fought together against fascism. Italian democratic institutions survived terrorist attacks, coup attempts and economic crises. Between 1964 and 1974, Italy suffered three attempted coups by extreme-right forces; between the late 1960s and the end of the 1980s, known as Anni di Piombo, the Years of Lead, terrorist attacks by both the extreme left and extreme-right groups killed hundreds of innocent — just between 1977 and 1978 there were more than 500 such attacks. Why are we so worried today? There are, in fact, several reasons for concern.
REASONS TO WORRY
The two parties that are about to form the next Italian government are driven by a profoundly anti-democratic culture. Their claim to so-called direct democracy exercised via the web on a platform owned by a private company is not just a staple of populism, but an attempt to fuel general discourse against any party in the name of the people. Their idea that every single member of the two chambers of Italy’s parliament has to be responsible to the party with which she/he has been elected is one of the classical characteristics of authoritarian systems. And, finally, their racist agenda against not only immigrants, but also toward any kind of minority — the Roma people, LGBTQI community, even toward children born in Italy to foreign parents — is another significant sign of an extremist right-wing thought.
Within the Five Star Movement is deeply rooted the idea that parties — all parties apart from itself— are corrupt and actively working to ruin Italy. While the League bases its political discourse more on racial and immigration issues, M5S openly talks about a new direct democracy with electronic tools and enlarging the possibility to call for a referendum on any aspect of public life.
This idea of direct democracy is deep down an authoritarian approach to politics; it involves the notion that people represent a unified body without fractures or divisions. This approach considers political parties, which divide society into classes and represent conflicting interests, as not entitled to represent the people — who in this case are ideologically imagined as a monolith, perverted by political games. This mystic body is searching for a movement that may represent it on a national and nationalistic base.
In this respect, the deputies elected to parliament are nothing more than executors of the party’s will. This bond between the forces of the League and M5S, who are actually very close to getting into power, is a critical-mass attack on the freedom of individual deputies to participate in an open political debate within parliament. Calls for a strong executive have become ever more popular among the public, undermining the very idea of democratic institutions.
For many years, the Five Star Movement and the Northern League portrayed parliament as a place of the never-ending debates with no decisions taken. They offered to the public a portrait of democracy as an old, ineffective way to rule a country compared with the speed of a our daily lives. The people, united as a nation — the motherland — in search of quick answers, need someone who knows how to put the national interest before everything else.
According to this idea, the nation must be protected, especially from outsiders; immigrants are dangerous not only for Italy’s economy, but they represent a particular menace to its culture. In the last few years, Italian television broadcast endless hours of hate speech and nonsensical diatribes linking immigration to terrorism and rising crime rates in Italian cities, spreading fear among the population. The Northern League wants to send back all illegal immigrants, fully aware that, due to legislation, it is almost impossible to enter Italy from a poor country in a legal way.
At the same time, the League and the M5S voted together against the right of citizenship for the young people who were born in Italy to immigrant parents even if the parents were in the country legally. Blood is what defines you as Italian; if you don’t have Italian parents, you do not belong to the national community. This new nationalism and racism, together with a strong discrimination against the LGBTQI community, is another worrying aspect of the government to come. On this last issue, it is important to remember that violent attacks toward immigrants, ethnic minorities and gays by neo-Nazi militants grew dramatically in the last years — a sign of a culture that is becoming more and more commonplace in Italy.
It is hard to predict what will happen in the next weeks, with ongoing consultations between the Five Star Movement and Northern League to produce a program that is still completely unclear at this point. The Italian economy is quite fragile, and European institutions are worried. At the same time, Russia is looking forward to the new government, because M5S and the League have promised to cancel economic sanctions imposed by the European Union. In France, National Front leader Marine Le Pen had tweeted to congratulate her allies.
Black clouds are shadowing the Italian spring. After a decade of terrible economic crises with no response from the left, incapable, culturally and politically, of giving a credible answer to the neo-liberal cliché of cutting social expenses, Italian left-wing parties were fated to be ejected from the game. The Italian left is doomed to disappear, unless it finds a way to invent a working social and democratic vision for the 21st century. At this stage, it is hard to imagine it has the cultural capital to do that.
The Northern League and the Five Star Movement have created the impression of having the will to face the economic and social crises that have plagued Italy since 2007. With the left nearly wiped from the Italian political landscape, these extremist parties become dangerous not only because of their ideas, but because of a lack of a credible and organized opposition in both parliament and in wider society.