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Italian elections and the not-so-new populist upstarts

By Monica Frassoni

The Italian elections had no clear winner. The political wildcard that is the Five Star Movement was the biggest party but trailed a centre-right coalition within which far-right Lega Nord overtook Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. In a tense and often toxic political climate, progressive forces face a considerable challenge to regain lost ground. An interview with Monica Frassoni, co-chair of the European Green Party, on the campaign, the results, and the way forward for political ecology.

Green European Journal: How do you read the results of the recent Italian election?

Monica Frassoni: The first result of the Italian elections is that we don’t have a government majority; a result not unprecedented and, above all, not unexpected. What is unexpected is the size of the victory of the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the far-right Northern League, or Lega. Interestingly, the Lega cannot be considered an anti-establishment party because it already governs two regions in Italy – Lombardy and Veneto – and held important positions in government, including interior minister and minister of institutional reforms, for almost two decades during the Berlusconi years. Matteo Salvini, Lega leader, decided to change the focus from separation from the ‘corrupt’ south to the fight against migrants and taxes, accentuating the tones of and normalising racist and xenophobic attitudes, inspired by France’s Marine Le Pen. No polls predicted the difference in outcome between the Lega and Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia. This is another very important result of this election: Berlusconi is basically over.

How do you explain the success of M5S and the Lega?

I explain the success of the M5S and the Lega through the suicidal attitude of the Democratic Party (PD) leader, Matteo Renzi; the very negative and polarising attitudes broadcast by the Italian media for quite a long time now, which gave great visibility to anti-establishment forces; and a very good campaign from Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, the M5S party leader. In Italy, media – both traditional and social media – have a major impact on politics. At the start of Salvini’s campaign, before the European elections of 2014 when his party was marginal because of serious corruption scandals, he did three very clever things. First, he was always in the media. In Italy, there are people who are built from scratch by the media. They are always on the same programmes and talk shows and, as a very effective and a very controversial person, he was one of them. He would say extremely strong things and face no resistance from the other side, and so he became very popular. He’s not nice at all but he’s catchy. Second, he went on campaign. You never saw him in Rome or in Brussels. He went to businesses, regions, villages… He went all over the place, everywhere. He wanted to be France’s Front National. Third, he is very effective on social media. The importance of this online influence shouldn’t be underestimated; he has more followers than President Macron.

The victory of both the Lega and M5S was propelled by the failure of the rest of the political system, above all Renzi’s PD, to respond to the new rhetoric and aggression of political campaigning and to the objective shortcomings of his government, notwithstanding some important results. It’s important to remember that M5S had 25 per cent of the vote in the 2013 general election so their recent success did not come out of nowhere. However, today’s situation was not at all unavoidable. Even after the elections, the current Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni is the number one preference of Italians. Renzi has been disastrous as a leader. There may well be a trend across Europe of Social Democrats losing votes and disappearing, but in Italy, Renzi’s PD had 40 per cent of the vote in 2014. Which other left-wing party in Europe in 2014 had 40 per cent of the vote? Despite this initial support, Renzi got it all wrong after that. He wanted to win the game with the M5S by dismantling the old system, notably through an unconvincing constitutional reform. He managed to unite everyone against him: he alienated progressive and greenish voters by forcing oil drilling and he never convinced the conservative ones. He made so many strategic and behavioral mistakes that people started to hate him, an effect only multiplied by the media. Mistakes he never really recognized.

Was this 2018 election a special one if you look at the long-term trajectory of the country over the last 30 years?

2018 is a watershed because you have two winning parties representing anti-establishment and anti-European options that are unprecedented in Italy. One of the problems is that the M5S and the Lega have helped fuel anger in a situation in which Italians had been long very unsatisfied and worried. Instead of directing that anger against the thieves, the incompetent, the corrupt, those who put us in this situation, and notably Berlusconi and its ally the Lega over their long years in government, the anger was directed against the political system as a whole. This happened also thanks to the inability of the PD and the Left in general to provide a credible answer to the increasing fears of the society, fuelled by media and propelled by M5S and Lega.

Society has been evolving in a worrying direction for quite some time. The acceptance of diversity has been lost to a great extent and you can be racist without too many worries. That is probably Salvini’s biggest victory. Renzi and the PD, in particular ministers such as the Interior Minister Marco Minniti, have failed to oppose these trends and the rest of the more progressive parties and civil society remained largely marginal in the debate. When Minniti said that the arrival on Italian shores by 12 000 migrants in few days put Italian democratic stability at risk, when he legitimises the criminalisation of NGOs saving migrants at sea, or when he signs an agreement with the Libyans sending migrants back to their prisons, he plays into the hands of Salvini and makes him stronger. Minniti and the PD ignored Jean-Marie Le Pen very wise words: “Don’t go for the imitation, go for the original.”

What role did the EU and the image of Europe play in the campaign?

I don’t believe Italians are inherently anti-European. But I do believe that we pro-Europeans didn’t do our job, primarily because of our weakness in the public debate. Renzi also used anti-European arguments without being able to influence European politics in a coherent way. The EU also has a huge responsibility for the way public opinion evolved in Italy. Three factors are particularly important in this regard. The first is, without a doubt, the lack of European solidarity towards Greece. Whether you like it or not, people remember that solidarity is just an empty word when worst comes to worst. The second is the success of the anti-euro rhetoric and the fact that Italians are convinced to having been cheated in the changeover from the lira and to the euro.[1]

Third, what really killed Europe in the eyes of Italians was the refugee crisis and its management. Here, we are in a perfect storm situation because across Italian society, there is a sense that Italy was ‘left alone.’ The reality is that Germans took in many more refugees than Italians did and that there are big flaws in the way Italy organises refugees and migrant flows. But the powerful image that Italian people remember is the fact that they took over the rescuing of migrants with Mare Nostrum navel rescue operation [read more on Mare Nostrum] whereas the rest of the EU did not apply the refugee relocation program [read more on the refugee crisis around Europe].

Let’s come back to M5S: who are the 2018 election winners?

M5S represented a real political innovation before they evolved into a centralised and rigidly closed movement where a bunch of men decide everything through advanced techniques of manipulation, as recently described in a very interesting book. Beppe Grillo [the principle figurehead behind M5S but not the party leader] had been very famous since the 1980s – a bit like Trump, a celebrity. Even before he entered politics and co-founded M5S [officially founded in 2009], he had the 8th most visited blog in the world. M5S proceeded to run a movement in an extremely professional and orderly fashion. They are strong on the web, foster online participation, and give people the feeling they are part of something.

Over 10 years ago, I invited Grillo to the European Parliament to talk about the protests against high-speed trains and transport infrastructure [read more on the No TAV protest movement]. Supporting local campaigns and environmental groups through his blog was then beginning of his political involvement. It was from that meeting at the Parliament that he launched the Vaffanculo Day [this day of protest held across Italy can be literally translated as Fuck Off Day] that he organised in 2007. One of the things that left me very sceptical was that he said, “I don’t want anything to do with anybody with political experience, no matter who.” Indeed, the main message of M5S and the key to their success is that “they [the political ‘establishment’] are all bad and corrupt.”

By doing this, he gave a powerful push to the delegitimation of all parties and institutions, fostered an extremely violent role for social media in the political debate, and went in the direction of the easy consensus. In this sense, their genuine democratic ethos and adherence to basic human rights values are questionable. Grillo said that if M5S would have a more positive attitude on migration they would have been about as popular as a phone’s dialing code, which in Italy always start with 0. At the same time, M5S was very good at surfing on the wave created by crisis and austerity without taking any notice of the debt issue, and promoted the old idea of a State that can solve all problems, as seen in their proposal for a basic income. Finally, during the campaign, M5S actually diminished their attacks on Europe and on the euro. They understood that Italians would not have supported a fully anti-EU approach. Even if they vote anti-establishment, people don’t want a mess.

You pointed to the responsibility of Renzi. But what about the rest of the PD and the Left in Italy?

Renzi devoted his power and energy not to innovative issues but to killing off the Left: trade unions, workers, environmentalists, and industry alike. He wanted to be the ‘rottamatore’ of Italy, to break up the old structures. He said “I will conquer some people from the right” but he ended up losing the Left and never conquering the conservatives. Not that the ‘old left’ has no responsibility in the current disaster.

In Liberi e Uguali (LEU), the coalition of the Left which broke with Renzi, there were no new ideas, old leaders, all men, and at the front there were people like Pier Luigi Bersani and Massimo D’Alema. Alongside their candidate Pietro Grasso, an important former anti-mafia judge but not an effective campaigner, LEU did put Rosella Muroni, former leader of the Legambiente environmental movement. But she was hidden during the campaign and her excellent image and campaign skills were covered by the visibility of old men whose main goal was to take back the PD from the one who had ‘stolen’ it from them. Hardly a winning strategy.

On the other hand, Emma Bonino [ex-foreign minister and leader of the liberal More Europe coalition] led a very pro-European campaign with very powerful push from the media and a lot of financial support. But at the end of the day she was not convincing because towards the end of the campaign she appeared as the one supporting the current EU and its dogmas. She also suffered from really big hate campaign, as did Laura Boldrini from LEU. The two most prominent women of the campaign were clearly targeted; it was really ugly.

Why don’t the green movement, civil society movements, and attitudes of Italians translate into a Green ecological party winning in the ballot box?

Politically Greens were never very strong in Italy, we were always a small party, even if we were able to win very relevant battles at least until the early 2000s. But in those years, the combination of very bad leadership and organisation, which gave us a bad image and progressively marginalised and expelled our best people, and an electoral reform which obliged us to go into shaky alliances and introduced high thresholds pushed us to the margins of the political arena. In addition, Greens suffer from the blurry and sometimes confusing boundaries between party, movement, and NGO. As a consequence of all this, Greens performed poorly as a party and an organisation in key moments at the beginning of the 2000s when we were politically at risk. Lots of money was wasted on useless activities with no attention for organisation and disconnection from the base. From there, we were never able to come back as other Green parties, such as Ecolo in Belgium, have done.

And what about the Greens who jumped ship to join bigger parties like the Left or the PD? How are green issues treated by other parties?

At least in Italy, the idea that Greens can somehow ‘contaminate’ other major parties with their ideas and policies did not work. This goes for the PD and at a lesser extent also for the Left. Issues of environment, climate, and green economy are present in Italian society but they don’t transform into votes also because there has been no leader or party who put these issues at the core of his or her agenda. M5S was born as a very green movement but they did not reach 30 cent because of this. Indeed, M5S were not particularly efficient in the Italian or the European Parliaments on green issues.

What should be the strategy of the Greens for the next European elections in 2019?

I cannot tell you today that in Italy there will be a clear Green option for the upcoming European elections. But I am convinced there should be one and I am not alone in thinking this. We have to strengthen a network of people who are pro-European and pro-Green, who are scattered and disappointed and are extremely worried about democracy and rule of law in the likely outcome of a Lega-M5S government. Our strategy must be anchored in that of the European Green family, which is based on democracy and rule of law, a green new deal, and a pro-European, pro-change stance. These are the three issues that we have to really insist on.

Now it’s the time to think and freely gather ideas. In the European Greens, we are interested in contributing to organising a reflection and get together of the environmental, civil, and human rights networks and political groups in Italy. We believe that Italy remains a key player in the future of Europe. We should not deem it lost just yet.

[1] Beyond the economic debate about the structural impact of euro membership in the Italian economy, there have been controversies in Italy about the exchange rate negotiated by the first Prodi government (1996-1998) and about the manner of its introduction, which is commonly seen as responsible for widespread price hikes.

Italian elections and the not-so-new populist upstarts

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