Italy’s Far-Right Is Still in the Driving Seat

Italy's far-right remains on the rise – with both the Lega and Fratelli d'Italia projected to gain in September's elections. The country's political direction offers a stark reminder of what happens when a fighting Left disappears.

In the first European country to see a mass outbreak, Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte has been widely credited for his response to coronavirus. If in the early stages of the crisis, Boris Johnson and his outriders denied that this country might face “Italian-style” mass deaths, ultimately Conte’s administration, and most of Italy’s regional healthcare systems, proved far more effective in combatting the spread of the virus than did Johnson’s ministers. 

But Conte’s government — a coalition between the eclectic Five Star Movement (M5S) and the liberal Democratic Party (PD) — is today again in turmoil, not least given its internal feuding over bailout measures from Brussels. Despite Conte’s own popularity, it is the far right that leads in the polls — and can expect big wins in September’s regional elections. Having quit the government in August 2019, Matteo Salvini’s Lega can currently boast around 25 percent support; even recent setbacks for his party have only served to boost Giorgia Meloni’s postfascist Fratelli d’Italia, now polling 15 percent.

David Broder’s First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy explores the deeper causes of this right-wing hegemony. It explains how since the early 1990s the working-class Left has collapsed while the space of political decision-making has narrowed. In this edited extract from the conclusion of the book, Broder links Salvini’s recent success to the radicalisation of the right-wing electorate and the wider volatility of the party system — but also points to the unstable bases of the Lega’s own newfound support.

Turning the Tide?

In late January 2020, the Democratic Party (PD) was celebrating its election victory in Emilia-Romagna — one of a handful of enduring red fortresses. After the formation of the PD’s government coalition with the Five Star Movement (M5S) in September 2019 the Lega had continued its electoral advance — in this contest Salvini promised that a win for his candidate would give the final “shove” to the government. In the end, he was defeated, as the centre-left won with 51.4 per cent of the vote. In an op-ed for La Repubblica Massimo Giannini could proclaim that “Stalingrad has not fallen.” Anti-fascist metaphors had repeatedly surfaced during the campaign itself; thousands of anti-Lega protesters had gathered at sites like Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, singing the Resistance anthem Bella Ciao and declaring themselves the “partisans for 2020.” So named for the way they packed into city squares, these “Sardines” claimed a non-partisan, democratic inspiration, and were widely credited with mobilising the vote against Salvini in the historic anti-fascist heartland. 

As election results trickled in, PD leader Nicola Zingaretti offered his “immense thanks to the Sardines” for the mass turnout for the centre-left candidate.  The PD’s relief over the result was striking. is was, after all, a stronghold that the Left would once have thought unassailable. Romagna was home to Italy’s first socialist party back in 1881, it was a mainstay of the Resistance against fascism, and from 1970 the Communist Party and its successors retained uninterrupted control, building a dense associative web linking party to cooperatives, unions and municpalised companies. The withering of such structures has had clear electoral effects – in 2019 the PD lost mayoralties like Ferrara and Forlì to the hard right, and then the previously impregnable regional government in Umbria. These defeats did not so much suggest that PD voters were decamping to the Lega, as that popular demoralisation had allowed the Right to sneak in on a low turnout. On this occasion, the 1 million votes for Salvini’s candidate almost matched the total that Berlusconi had racked up in 2000, but enough of the centre-left’s base turned out to deny him. 

The election thus saw a hardening polarisation between centre-left and the populist right — perhaps pointing even to a fresh recomposition of the party system. Within the right-wing bloc, support overwhelmingly owed toward Salvini’s party: where the Lega candidate took 32 per cent of the vote, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia vehicle was reduced to a meagre 2.6 per cent, trailing behind the postfascist Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, on 8.6 per cent. The Right’s total number of votes was not a historic high, even in this “red region” – but these voters had swung behind increasingly radical forces. The PD endeavoured to centre the election on local issues, from kindergartens to free school transport. But the Lega’s own culture-warrior approach – whipping up scandal over the adoption of children by social services, and indeed the recent parole of a child-killer – showed the power of a stridently populist agenda, not directly centred on material demands but rather the radical delegitimisation of the left. 

Yet this polarisation mainly owed to a less-noted aspect of the election — the effective demise of the party that had first lifted Salvini into national government back in June 2018. Even as the Five Star Movement remained the largest single force in parliament, indeed the party with the strongest representation in Conte’s government, it slumped to pitiful results, as its voters polarised between the PD candidate (taking two-thirds of their votes) and, in lesser measure, the Lega. Back in the March 2018 general election, the M5S had been the largest single party in Emilia-Romagna, with 27.5 per cent support — this time, it slumped to 4.7 per cent. In a simultaneous contest in Calabria, in the M5S’s southern heartlands, there was an even more precipitous fall, from 43.4 per cent to 6.2 per cent in under two years. While regional contests have often been unkind to M5S, there was no hiding the sense of crisis. With the party stumbling in the polls, leader Luigi di Maio resigned four days before the elections even took place. 

At the time of writing, the M5S was still in government, together with the PD. Yet with such poor results — and poll ratings at under half its 2018 score — this “anti-establishment” force now appears as a parliamentary rump, terrified of the next encounter with the electorate. Such a rapid decline well illustrates M5S’s fundamental shallowness, unable to meet the test of institutional power. Having promised never to enter coalitions, within eighteen months of its March 2018 election win it had allied in government first with Salvini’s Lega, then with the Democrats, in each case becoming the subordinate partner despite its greatly larger number of MPs and senators. Before his death in 2016, co-founder Gianroberto Casaleggio had insisted the M5S would govern with the PD “over my dead body:” this did, indeed, come to pass, exposing its full incoherence. Rather than change the forms of politics, the M5S was itself changed, throwing overboard first its anti-corruption charter, then its no-coalition policy, then its commitment to strip press barons of state funding. 

Such a dismal story fits well with the political times – an intense volatility, borne of the disconnect between ephemeral party containers and a fragmented Italian society. In my new book we track the contingent events which facilitated Salvini’s rise — from the downfall of Lega Nord founder Umberto Bossi to the final conviction of Berlusconi and the M5S’s willingness to lift him to the Interior Ministry. This success was, however, also based on deeper strengths of the Lega, whose deep-rooted territorial organisation has time and again allowed it to survive temporary electoral setbacks. Raised to national government in June 2018, Salvini used his media platform to swallow up his right-wing brother-enemies, making the Interior Ministry into the stage for a permanent election campaign. When, in August 2019, he attempted to cash in his successes – splitting the M5S–Lega coalition – he did not get the early elections he was looking for. Yet by all indicators the M5S is a party living on borrowed time, whereas Salvini heads a right-wing bloc commanding over 50 per cent in the polls. 

Bases of Hegemony

Italian politics defy easy predictions — and Salvini’s bid for an enduring hegemony still has hurdles to clear. Having expanded beyond its historic Northern redoubts, the Lega’s territorial organisation in the South remains relatively shallow, whereas the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia is currently a rising force — factors which at least pose problems to Salvini’s bid to turn his poll lead and media platform into a genuinely national party. His boasts that he would win the January 2020 regional elections in Emilia-Romagna, like the failed bid for early elections in August 2019, have perhaps gone some way to dent his credibility as a winner. Yet the generational shift from the Berlusconi-era centrodestra to the nationalist right led by Salvini represents a formidable and lasting enemy for the left – the Lega’s recently won mayors and regional offices should allow the extension of its hegemony and the deepening of its organisation. And as in the days of anti-Berlusconism, purely defensive responses — the moral call to rally all forces against Salvini, to stop the “barbarians at the gates” — risk merely feeding his bid to polarise the political field around his own chosen themes. 

If Emilia-Romagna was, as one La Repubblica columnist put it, a “Stalingrad” for the centre-left, which managed to hold back the Lega’s advance, it seems far from clear that the heirs of Italian Communist Party will do more than defend their last fortresses — and actually go on to reconquer lost ground. With the Democratic Party’s (PD) defeat in Calabria, the same day as the Emilia-Romagna vote, the centre-left was reduced to control of just six regions, as against thirteen for the right. But more fundamentally, the class profile of PD voters, increasingly based upon the wealthiest and oldest Italians, points to a dismal future — a party no longer able to promise better days ahead, instead begging its former base to hold back the hordes. The ongoing collapse of the M5S heralds the return of a traditional polarisation, setting the centre-left bloc in opposition to the right led by Salvini’s Lega. Yet what has changed is the content of these blocs – for the centre-left no longer appears a vehicle able to galvanise working people in the cause of greater material well-being and deeper democratic participation. 

Since the Brexit vote in June 2016, the prospect of other countries following it out the door has continually decreased. If press suggested in the build-up to the 2018 Italian general election that the election of a populist coalition might herald a fresh crisis event for the euro, both the Lega and M5S had already abandoned calls for a referendum on exit, and their short-lived opposition to Brussels’ budget restraints proved purely theatrical. Forming a stronger hard-right bloc in the European Parliament in May 2019, Salvini has voiced his base’s own Euroscepticism, but mainly on the grounds of immigration and what Brussels euphemistically calls “preserving the European way of life”. This does not mean that Italy’s difficult relationship with European integration has found an answer – or that the Lega in opposition will refrain from damning fiscal constraints like the European Stability Mechanism. 

Since the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, an event which followed soon after the dissolution of the Communist Party, the centre-left has continually asserted the primacy of European rules over all other considerations – embracing the ‘external bind’ on Italian democratic politics. is has, as in other countries, provided an ideological framing for the left’s weakened roots in class politics, not showing that Europe can provide material benefits for working people so much as demanding sacrifices from these latter in the name of Europeanism. For want of any perspective for reversing the terms of this relationship — securing relief from Italy’s 2.5 trillion euros of public debt or achieving the space to borrow and invest — the only effect can be a continued hollowing out of  the Left’s social base, reduced to a few holdouts comfortably enough off to treat the European question as a culture war alone. It is true that the working class does not look like it once did – but the Italian centre-left isn’t mobilising the precarious, the pink-collar or self-employed, either. 

Loss of Collective Hope

It would be optimistic to say that Italy today finds itself at the crossroads, as if choosing between two different paths. For if the tumult of Italian politics defies easy predictions, the Lega is the most dynamic force, with the clearest opportunities to sink roots. A continued lack of economic growth, and the dangers posed by the next crisis in the eurozone, seem much more likely to feed the Lega’s nationalism, even if this does not imply any outright break with the EU project. The prospects of a left-wing alternative remain bleak: for almost three decades this very project has served as the ideological framing for what Luciano Gallino calls the “class struggle after the class struggle”, namely the war on social and labour rights, the upward redistribution of wealth, and the slashed public investment that have followed the near-total collapse of the old Left and the workers’ movement. Among all European countries, these forces are perhaps weaker in Italy than anywhere else. 

Lega’s territorial organisation is a particular strength. In this sense, it is yet to complete its transformation into a truly Italian force, or one that can survive setbacks in Salvini’s own leadership. His flaunting of nationalist kitsch and the rosary beads may aid his drive into the South, yet in the party’s most-rooted heartlands, it is instead the regionalist cause which still counts for most. In his time in government in 2018-19, Salvini sought to extend federalism beyond the North, for instance in Sardinia. Yet the project is not so easily rolled out everywhere. For as poorer and more rural regions know, they will be relatively disadvantaged if the Lega allows its own home regions to keep more of their tax take. Thus, even as Salvini’s nationalist leadership took the party to previously unknown heights, it also created a potential fault-line in Lega ranks, with the demands of regional bosses like Veneto’s Luca Zaia or Lombardy’s Attilio Fontana standing at odds with any more inclusive national project. 

Salvini’s leadership has, without a doubt, marked an extraordinary development in the Lega. The power of the deep-rooted cadre party of the North has now been projected across the peninsula — in part by the extension of its historic territorial model, but far more so by Salvini’s presence as a media figure. The suddenness of this breakthrough is not itself surprising, amid the wider climate of volatility — the advances for the Five Star Movement in 2013, or indeed Berlusconi in 1994, were just as impressive. But herein lies a danger for the Lega. In Susanna Turco’s words, the new arrivals in Lega ranks “seem rather like a wave like that of the Forza Italia in 1994, the stunning success that then develops into an organised force”. A harsh nationalism and anti-immigration sentiment do seem, for now, to provide a glue for the Lega’s different souls. Yet the Lega has always also fought over material demands, and its balancing act between contradictory and often evasive positions on the eurozone, on public spending and on welfare is far from guaranteed to last. 

For Salvini, like Berlusconi in his heyday, the war on “reds” and “communists” can continue, even in the absence of organised communist forces. Posed as redemption from the Left’s supposed cultural dominance, this allows a harsh nationalism to be posed in the terms of victimhood, not unlike the far-right populisms spreading across central and eastern Europe. Like in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary or Poland under Law and Justice, the delegitimisation of the Left is being used to demand the silence of a much wider array of oppositional forces, from NGOs working on migrant rescue to feminists and environmentalists. Yet defending such movements is but one part of the vast challenges that face a paralysed Italian Left. After decades of defeats, what it most of all lacks is the ability to imagine itself as more than a force of resistance, opposition and subculture — one able to mobilise the social majority, conquer institutions and use them to mount a wider revitalisation of the Italian economy and society. 

In Gallino’s terms, the loss of collective hope — the belief that common actions can have a real bearing on political and economic decisions — has given rise to individual and atomised responses, characterised by disillusionment and despair. These have been the sentiments mobilised by both the Five Star Movement and the Lega, in turn planting their flags in former heartlands of the Left. Italian Socialists used to speak of the “sun of the future,” the promise of tomorrow — a vision hard to imagine in the current climate. Deprived of a party of their own, the atomised masses have broken up into disempowered fragments, capable of sporadic signs of discontent but not to carry forth an alternative set of values, a vision of regeneration, a community built on collective pride. Italy does, indeed, have social conflict, but it is a war being fought from above, dismantling and disaggregating the historic conquests of the labour movement and driving an ever-harsher climate of resentment, division and disdain for the public sphere. 

Italy is not such an outlier — it’s more like a concentration of the present condition, than a throwback to the past. For all the unfamiliarity of its party acronyms and all the idiosyncrasies of its regions, Italy has in recent decades served as a laboratory for changes which we now see spreading across the West. The recasting of the right by a nationalist demagogue, and indeed the collapse of the working-class left, are hardly phenomena limited to this peninsula; the wider weakening of political engagement and democratic institutions are, similarly, becoming increasingly apparent even beyond Italian shores. Here, as elsewhere, defiant campaigns for the lesser evil, rallying all forces to keep the “barbarians” at bay, never seems to stop the evils from getting worse. Liberal press used to complain that the vulgar populist Berlusconi was undermining Italian public life — and that the tycoon’s all-dominant position would never end. Now, as Italy’s political meltdown continues apace, some would be glad to have him back.

For Salvini’s opponents, calling him a liar, corrupt, and a fascist has not yet opened up a breach in his support. Yet worse, it shows perilously little sign of giving the social majority a sense that politics can improve their lives — and that there’s more to political action than keeping the barbarians at bay. For three decades, the left has been unable to answer that problem, and not only on this peninsula. Doing so is an imperative, before we all find that Italy is a mirror of our own futures.