“Populism in Europe — Lessons from Umberto Bossi’s Northern League” Published

Today 28th September 2021 Manchester University Press has published Populism in Europe — Lessons from Umberto Bossi’s Northern League the latest book by the Populism in Action Project’s Principal Investigator Prof. Daniele Albertazzi (University of Surrey). The book is co-written with Dr. Davide Vampa (Aston University).

The book offers a detailed and systematic analysis of the ideology, electoral and governmental performances, organisational model, type of leadership and member activism of the Northern League under its founder, Umberto Bossi (1991-2012). Based on a wealth of original research, the book identifies the Northern League’s consistent and coherent ideology, its strong leadership and its ability to create communities of loyal partisan activists as key ingredients of its success. Through their in-depth analysis, Albertazzi and Vampa show that the League has much to teach us about how populists can achieve durability and rootedness and how parties of all kinds can still benefit from a committed and dedicated membership today.

Full details and how to purchase a copy can be found here.

A launch event for the book is being co-organised by the University of Surrey, Aston University, PSA Italian Studies Group and facilitated by the ESRC funded Populism in Action project led by Pro. Daniele Albertazzi and Dr. Stijn van Kessel. Register for the event running 16:00-17:30 (UK time) on 20th October 2021. 

Daniele Albertazzi Quoted in the Financial Times

Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator Dr. Daniele Albertazzi was quoted in the Financial Times on 08/07/2021. The article written by the paper’s Italy Correspondent Miles Johnson with Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli, is entitled “Silvio Berlusconi: Italy’s great survivor plots a succession plan”.

In the Johnson and Sciorilli Borrelli explore current developments within Forza Italia and Silvio Berlusconi’s business holdings, as well as assessing and appraising the businessman and politician’s career to date.

Daniele Albertazzi says that:

“No one inside Forza Italia really believes that the party can exist in a meaningful way without Berlusconi… If he named a successor he could have helped the party survive after him, but it remains entirely dependent on his personality and even funding.”

Reflecting on how Berlusconi has changed Italian politics and political discourse he says:

“If you listen back to that speech now it is all still there, he hasn’t really changed a single word over his career… He says ‘I am an outsider, I created an empire for myself and I can do the same for you. The politicians are corrupt and have betrayed you, and I am the man to lead the country.”

“He is the father of the idea that politics and politicians are dirty and need to be replaced by something else.” “These guys [Berlusconi’s children] are from a different world. The business may continue but the Berlusconi way of doing politics is dead.”

You can read the article in full here (paywall)

Daniele Albertazzi Quoted in Italy’s Domani

Populism in Actions’ Principal Investigator Dr. Daniele Albertazzi was quoted in an article published by the Italian newspaper Domani on 29/06/21. The article is about Giuseppe Conte’s political future, and more specifically whether he may soon leave the Five Star Movement and create yet another ”personal party”.

According to Dr. Albertazzi:

“If Conte were to found his own personal party we would again witness a situation whereby someone who has managed to become very well known without having roots in a specific area, without having created a party organisation and, in this case, without a clear ideology and values tries to ‘cash in’ on his notoriety for political advantage”.

While personal parties are now very widespread across Europe, Dr. Albertazzi argues that Italy has been an avant-guarde in this respect in recent years.

Read the full article (in Italian) here.

Has the Pandemic Changed Populism in Italy?

Donatella Bonansinga will be presenting the research which underpins this blog post (co-written with Populism in Action’s Dr. Daniele Albertazzi and Mattia Zulianello) at the 6th Prague Populism Conference on 18th May 2021 between 14:30 and 15:30 (Czech time). You can watch the conference live feed here.


by Donatella Bonansinga

The Italian populist right had already changed significantly since the 2018 elections reconfigured its relations of power.

After decades of Silvio Berlusconi’s dominance, the League led by Matteo Salvini became the coalition’s biggest force. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia was sidelined with 14% support, further shrinking to 8% in the 2019 European Parliament elections. A third party, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), became the coalition’s minor force, gaining more than 4% of votes in 2018. Its support grew exponentially, and the party effectively displaced Forza Italia.

Then the pandemic arrived.

Politics in the Time of COVID

When Coronavirus infections began their spread across Italy in February 2020, the three parties of the Italian populist right positioned themselves cautiously vis-à-vis the national Government. They were well aware that Italians were rallying around Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at a moment of acute crisis.

While the populist parties turned Europe into a key element of debate, they did so in starkly different terms. The more radical forces — the League and Fratelli d’Italia — attacked the European Union for its inability to help Italy, insinuating that supranational institutions were conspiring to damage the Italian economy. In line with their nativist ideology, both cast blame for the virus upon Chinese nationals and immigrants and amplified the narrative of strong border protections.

Berlusconi also diverted the debate towards the EU, but he did so with a positive welcome of European efforts during the early phases of the pandemic. The former Prime Minister had already begun distancing himself from the more radical tone of his allies since the 2019 European Parliament elections. He is using the pandemic as a further opportunity to present himself and his party as a responsible, non-populist force.

After the dramatic first wave in Italy and the movement of the virus throughout Europe, the economic and social impact of the pandemic was evident. EU member states agreed on an unprecedented mutualization of debt, the Recovery Fund.

Presented again with the opportunity to mobilize the EU as a focus of debate, the populist coalition only displayed a lack of unity. The League dismissed the Fund. Fratelli d’Italia remained cautiously sceptical. Both continued their nativist trope of illegal immigrants spreading the virus. In contrast, confirming his strategic Europhile-turn, Berlusconi celebrated the Fund’s approval.

The “Winning Formula” Remains

At the end of 2020, the League declined to 24% in the polls, from a peak of 34% in the EU elections. Fratelli d’Italia had become the third-biggest force in Italy, pushing aside the “hybrid” populist Five Star Movement which is in government with the center-left Partito Democratico. It also relegated Berlusconi, once the indisputable leader of the coalition, into a minor player with Forza Italia polling at around 7%.

Despite these significant changes, the coalition projects important elements of continuity, especially in terms of its political message and overall support. It is still a populist force counter-posing a virtuous Italian people against distant and harmful elites in Rome and Brussels. Despite Berlusconi’s softer tones and newly-found affinity for the EU, the coalition still dominates the agenda with immigration, anti-EU, and law and order themes.

The political message is shaped by populism, nativism, and Euroscepticism as it was when Berlusconi founded the coalition 20 years ago. This is a consistent political offering with a stable support remaining well above 40%.

Despite some reshuffling and new sources of division brought by the pandemic, the coalition is in good electoral health and can count on a winning formula for the foreseeable future.

Donatella Bonansinga is a PhD student in the Department of POLSIS at the University of Birmingham. You can follow her on Twitter here. In addition to the conference presentation on this topic, her research with Daniele Albertazzi and Mattia Zulianello has been published as “The right-wing alliance at the time of the Covid-19 pandemic: all change?” in Contemporary Italian Politics.

This blog is co-published with EA Worldview

Daniele Albertazzi’s Analysis is Quoted in Politico Europe Article on Giorgia Meloni

Analysis of the shifting dynamics of the populist radical right in Italy by Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator Dr. Daniele Albertazzi was quoted in “Could Giorgia Meloni be Italy’s first female prime minister?” an article for Politico Europe written by Hannah Roberts and published on 12/05/21.

Daniele Albertazzi explains that Meloni poses:

 “a realistic threat” to Salvini’s leadership of the right-wing alliance… She is in a very good place.”

And that:

“The right-wing parties have a long history of working together [having] governed together for twenty five years…

Meaning if the Brothers of Italy come ahead of the League in a future election:

“…it is hard see how anyone can stop her becoming prime minister,”

The article can be read in full here.

The right-wing alliance at the time of the Covid-19 pandemic: all change? Published

“The right-wing alliance at the time of the Covid-19 pandemic: all change?” an article by PiAP’s Principal Investigator Daniele Albertazzi, University of Birmingham PhD student Donatella Bonansinga and PiAP’s Italy focused Research Fellow Mattia Zulianello was published in Contemporary Italian Politics yesterday.

Donatella explains that in the article:

Daniele Albertazzi, Mattia Zulianello and I, assess change and continuity on the Italian (populist) right. We argue that, despite changes in leadership, shifts in power relations and conflicting stances during the pandemic, this coalition shows important elements of continuity too, especially in terms of ideological messages and electoral support.  Our analysis scans the year 2020 by looking at 5 key turning points, examining how parties and leaders of the Italian right reacted to these salient events on Twitter. It also reconstructs the evolution of their support in voting intention polls throughout the year.

You can read the article in full here.

Italy’s League: A Modern Mass Party

This autumn the Populism in Action Project will be publishing a Special Issue of the open access journal Politics and Governance on populist radical right party organisation, with a special focus on the extent to which parties in this family remain centralized in decision-making. The Special Issue will cover both Western and Eastern/Central Europe and include contributions by experts from all over the continent. All four of the Populism in Action Project’s Research Fellows will contribute an article exploring the findings of the research that they’ve been undertaking since 2019. Ahead of the publication of the Special Issue, in this series of blog posts our research fellows share “three key takeaways” from their articles


by Dr. Mattia Zulianello

Most descriptions of Italy’s League (Lega), led by Matteo Salvini, portray it as a party whose success is entirely dependent on social media and the fortunes of its leader.

This is a mistake. The League is the legacy of its predecessor, Umberto Bossi’s Northern League (Lega Nord, LN) and provides an outstanding example of a modern mass party.

For most of the LN’s existence, Bossi concentrated his energy on an organizational structure inspired by traditional mass parties. There was a notable paradox: while the LN had nothing to do with the ideology of Leninist parties, its organisational structure and its overall logic of operation were inspired by them.

The “people” whom the League claims to defend are no longer just Northern Italians, but all Italians. However, the organisational structure sought by Bossi continues and evolves by exploiting new technologies.

Democratic Centralism and Leninist Organisation

The LN was characterised by an unquestionable hierarchy, recruitment mechanisms designed to protect it from careerists and opportunists, a plurality of ancillary structures for all the League’s activities, and cadre schools for the formation of the ruling class. But above all, the LN was centered on the decisive importance of activism, Bossi’s “unknown militant”. This was a mission, a constant commitment, cemented by loyalty and devotion to the party.

In line with its Leninist-derived organizational structure, today’s League considers loyalty, respect for internal hierarchy, and ostentatious activism as its supreme values. The party’s apparatus is shaped like a pyramid and hinges on democratic centralist principles, conveying the idea of being “one body”. Space is provided for discussion and internal debate, but externally the message of the party must be univocal.

On the Streets and on the Web

While Bossi’s League was a traditional mass party, Salvini’s carefully exploits new technologies, in particular social media and instant messaging systems, to adapt this organizational model to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

The League today is less bureaucratic and more efficient, but its pillar remains the “ostentatious” militant, someone who sets up the gazebos, does flyering, and pours mulled wine. Social media is important for the communication strategy, but it is only one part of a triptych comprising Television, Internet, and Territory.

Old media, new media, and on the ground physical activism are integrated to amplify the message. Activists pursue a wide range of activities both on-line and off-line: leafleting, gazebos, party local festivals and rallies, protests, petitioning, social events, and book presentations. Activism is an activity and an ideology, enveloping members in a “family” or “team” for a grassroots base which can be mobilized as required.

This activist base, structured through a network of local, provincial, and regional branches, makes the League much more resistant when is losing support and helping it grow faster when conditions are favourable.

Exporting the North’s Modern Mass Party to the South

In Northern Italy, Salvini’s League has inherited the organizing principles and practices of the old LN, as well as its membership, structures, and resources. Activists can be mobilized in days thanks to deeply embedded patterns of loyalty, dedication, and respect for hierarchy.

The League is attempting to “export” this modern conception of the mass party to the South, but its potential for success remains unknown. Organisational routines require time to take root and consolidate in a new context, and the League’s roll-out of its organisational model is an unprecedented political operation.

The League has not only reinvented itself ideologically from a populist regionalist party to a state-wide populist radical right party. It has done so with the explicit intention of exporting its organisational model to regions that in the past were hostile and which the party derided. This is the League’s decisive challenge.

Dr. Mattia Zulianello is the Populism in Action Project’s Italy focused Research Fellow. You can follow him on Twitter here.


Deep Dive Politics: Italy and Populism in Europe with Daniele Albertazzi

Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator Dr. Daniele Albertazzi was the guest on Deep Dive Politics World Unfiltered Youtube channel and podcast on 20/03/21

You can view the video here.

You can listen to the podcast here.

In the course of a discussion with EA Worldview Editor Prof. Scott Lucas, Daniele Albertazzi considers questions relating to current political developments in Italy around the formation of the Draghi government, how Italy’s populist radical right political forces are responding to it, and general questions relating to the origins, nature, and ongoing development of the populist radical right political phenomenon.