Italy Focused Research Fellow Mattia Zulianello Writes a Feature for Domani

PiAP’s Italy focused Research Fellow Dr. Mattia Zulianello has had a feature article published in Domani a recently created broadsheet style newspaper focused on longform journalism and expert analysis.

In the piece entitled This is Why the pandemics Have Not Killed Populism, the key points he makes based upon his research are:

Most European populist parties had a negative trend in their voting intentions in the first phase of the pandemic (until the end June). However, despite some notable exceptions, the decline in polls has been rather limited, and is far from being a debacle. More generally, various parties actually gained votes by the summer.

Governing parties in Europe, both populist and non-populist, tended to benefit from the rally-round-the-flag effect. In particular, right-wing populists in government in Europe have seen substantial growth in voting intentions when adopting the most stringent measures to contain the spread of the virus.




Video: Understanding Right-Wing Populism in Italy

This post originally appeared on EA Worldview

PiAP’s Principal Investigator Daniele Albertazzi talks with the project’s Research Fellow for Italy, Mattia Zulianello, about his research on the League Party led by Matteo Salvini.

The discussion considers three core themes around the League’s rapid development and prominence in Italian politics and society.

How and why the League is attempting to export its model of mass party organisation from its initial base in northern Italy to the south?

What are the challenges of expansion into the south for a regional party now seeking to be national?

How can the League meet that challenge with the combination of its use of “new media” and its offline activity?

PiAP’s Mattia Zulianello Awarded Italian Habilitation

The Populism in Action Project’s Mattia Zulianello has been awarded his Italian National Scientific Habilitation.

The Habilitation was granted with the unanimous assent of the Review Committee. The recognition enables Mattia to hold the post of Associate Professor in Political Science at any Italian University.

Mattia is PiAP’s specialist Research Fellow on Italy. His latest article for the Project, co-written with Daniele Albertazzi, is “Populism and the Collapse of Italy’s Coronavirus Truce“.

A New Leader for Italy’s Political Right?

The Financial Times draws on the expertise of Populism in Action Project’s Daniele Albertazzi as it assesses the challenge of Giorgia Meloni to Matteo Salvini’s leadership of right-wing politics in Italy.

Meloni’s party has risen to 16.2% in polling, compared to 6.5% in last year’s European elections. Salvini’s League has fallen to 24.3% in polls after taking 34.3% in the elections.

Albertazzi’s assessment is that:

Arguably the voters that Meloni is taking from Salvini were naturally hers all along. Salvini was the one who transformed his party from a regionalist party to a nationalist one. She is now winning back the voters who were voting for the earlier post-fascist parties in the past.

This does not mean that Meloni will necessarily supplant Salvini as the leader of the right in the short term.

“I don’t think anyone is expecting her to become prime minister at this stage,” Albertazzi assesses. “But if she continues like this, it’s certainly not impossible. And if she does, I expect her to project a far more moderate image than many would expect.”

Read full article….

A Starter Library on Populism

By PiAP’s Adrian Favero, Niko Hatakka, Judith Sijstermans, Mattia Zulianello – this piece originally appeared on EA Worldview

We asked each of the Research Fellows on the Populism in Action Project to give us opening recommendations to learn about populism, populist parties, and the future of European politics and society.

This is their Starter’s Library:

Dr. Adrian Favero, Switzerland focused Research Fellow

Nicole Loew and Thorsten Fass (2019) “Between Thin- and Host-ideologies: How Populist Attitudes Interact with Policy Preferences in Shaping Voting Behaviour,” Representation

Loew and Fass, from the Freie Universität Berlin, explores the demand side of left-wing and right-wing populism in Germany. They focus on voters for the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) and Die Linke (Left Party), applying the ideational approach to populism as a framework for their research.

The study considers the complex interaction between populist attitudes, policy preferences, and voter choice. Loew and Fass build an analysis derived from the literature on host ideologies, such as socialism and nationalism, that influence voting behavior.

In their conclusion, they outline convincingly that on the demand side of politics, populist attitudes and strong policy preferences lead to votes for populist parties on either the left or the right. Yet voters with moderate policy concerns and strong populist attitudes are still more likely to vote for populist parties because these attitudes substitute for policy preferences.

The article sheds light on a group of voters who are less driven by policy preferences than they are motivated by populism itself. If this is true across the nation, populist parties can rely on either policies or populist attitudes as a driver to increase their vote share.

Shelley Boulianne, Karolina Koc-Michalska, and Bruce Bimber (2020) “Right-Wing Populism, Social Media and Echo Chambers in Western Democracies”, New Media & Society

Boulianne, Koc-Michalska, and Bruce Bimber explore the effect of self-exposure to social media–based “echo chambers” on the rise of right-wing populism.

Based on a large-scale survey of 4500 respondents conducted in France, the UK, and the US, the authors assess citizens’ experiences of echo-chamber effects and support for populist parties. The novelty of this strand of research is the study’s comparative approach, which rules out country-specific explanations such as economics and immigration.

The study also assesses the polarizing effect of echo chambers and polarization’s link to left-wing or right-wing ideologies. The authors conclude that exposure to selective information in social media echo chambers does not predict support for right-wing parties as opposed to other parties. However, they find an echo chamber effect in the context of offline discussions with like-minded people, which is associated with support for right-wing populists.

The findings challenge the common assumption that digital echo chambers increase the propensity to endorse right-wing populism.

Laurent Bernhard and Hanspeter Kriesi (2019) “Populism in Election Times: A Comparative Analysis of 11 Countries in Western Europe”, West European Politics

Bernhard and Kriesi, through a content analysis of press releases in 11 countries in Western Europe, offers an interesting comparative analysis of the populist ideology expressed by parties during election campaigns.

They evaluate three types of appeals: people-centrism, anti-elitism, and demands for popular sovereignty. They not only look at populist parties from both the radical right and the radical left, but also at the division of issue dimensions, such as culture and economy, in northern and southern Europe. The article combines quantitative text analysis with qualitative examples, providing the reader with helpful illustrations of the national context.

The authors conclude that mainstream parties are less prone to rely on populist rhetoric. Intriguingly, this challenges the assumption that mainstream parties adjust to populist strategies exhibited by the far left and right. This description of gradual populism among “extreme parties” is important because it highlights the importance of nuanced classification.

A Swiss People’s Party poster in 2016: "Finally Create Security"

A Swiss People’s Party poster in 2016: “Finally Create Security” (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Dr. Niko Hatakka, Finland focused Research Fellow

Salla-Maaria Laaksonen, Mervi Pantti, and Gavan Titley (2020) “Broadcasting the Movement and Branding Political Microcelebrities: Finnish Anti-Immigration Video Practices on YouTube”, Journal of Communication

The authors analyze the usage of YouTube by Finnish anti-immigration movements after 2015.

Despite online platforms having significant effects on the style, contents, and form of populist radical right activism, in and parallel to the Finns Party, specific Finnish online movements have rarely been researched empirically. The study is based on qualitative content analysis of the actors, genres, functions, styles, framings, and strategies employed in YouTube videos affiliated to two separate movements, Rajat Kiinni and Suomen Kansa Ensin. The qualitative analysis is preceded and eloquently informed by a simple, yet effective, network analysis.

The paper highlights the role of microcelebrities as pivotal nodes in the movement’s network. Without explicitly stating the outcome, the authors display and discuss how YouTube’s properties and functions affect the process of empty signifiers uniting hybrid political movements.

Michael Hameleers and Rens Vliegenthart (2020) “The Rise of a Populist Zeitgeist? A Content Analysis of Populist Media Coverage in Newspapers Published between 1990 and 2017”, Journalism Studies

Hameleers and Vliegenhart’s article contributes to the discussion on the mainstreaming of populism as a thin-centered ideology in Western Europe.

Focusing on a 28-year period in the Netherlands, the authors use a dictionary-based approach to analyze the temporal prevalence of populist communication in newspapers. Measuring the number of articles which contain pre-selected words that are indicative of four selected elements of populist communication, the study portrays how people-centric and anti-elitist communication has become more prevalent over time.

The paper is the first attempt to use a word-based automated analysis of populist communication on a longer time scale. Because of its single country focus, it effectively proves an outlet-independent increase in the elements of populist communication measured.

Future studies seeking to pursue this method will have to resolve the problem of being able to use it reliably in a comparative setting. The difficulty of this task raises interesting questions about whether the thin-ideological understanding of the different elements of populism, for example viewing “the people” as the “ordinary people”, corresponds to the reality of how populist mobilizations are enabled by a staggeringly vast array of signifiers.

Jonathan Dean and Bice Maiguascha (2020) “Did Somebody Say Populism? Towards a Renewal and Reorientation of Populism Studies”, Journal of Political Ideologies

The mainstream of populism research is strongly rooted in the ideational approach, which regards populism as a set of ideas or a thin-centered ideology. So it is refreshing to read articles that engage with the “other” approach, the Laclaudian theory of populism.

Dean and Maiguascha critically analyze the strengths and weaknesses of both theoretical approaches and encourage populism scholars to critically evaluate whether their use of the concepts are useful. Specifically they urge scholars to ask whether their selected definition of populism can both feed into anti-populist rhetoric and provide momentum for “populist hype”.

The authors suggest that more scholarly attention should be directed to populism not as a concept but as a signifier that has potential to be more political than analytical, especially outside of academia. A good first step will be a more conscious effort by scholars to recognize and be transparent about the epistemic limits of our definitions and operationalization of “populist ideas”, “populist style”, and “populist logic”.

Referring to only one of these distinct elements comprehensively as “populism” makes little sense and enflames disputes between the different populism research communities. Further work to combine the theoretical aspects of the different sub-disciplines of populism research should be encouraged, and this article is an excellent contribution to such a pursuit.

Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho

Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho

Dr. Judith Sijstermans, Belgium focused Research Fellow

Léonie de Jonge (2019). “The Populist Radical Right and the Media in the Benelux: Friend or Foe?”, The International Journal of Press/Politics

De Jonge’s work focuses on Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg and ties into the case of the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest, VB), one of four cases being studied by the Populism in Action Project.

Drawing on evocative interviews with media practitioners, de Jonge argues that the media in the Netherlands and Flanders have taken a more accommodating approach to right wing populist parties, in comparison with that of the media in Wallonia and Luxembourg. These approaches are shaped by mass media market dynamics in each country and the nature of their political systems.

De Jonge suggests that differing media responses have shaped the populist parties’ electoral trajectories. This speaks to an interesting dynamic within Belgium, where Flanders and Wallonia differ significantly in terms of populist radical right success. This has been further studied by Hilde Coffé.

It may seem incongruous to include a work so focused on the media in this review. However, in my early interviews with VB representatives, the media has been a pressing issue. The party seeks out support on social media to bypass what they see as a widespread “cordon mediatique” in the Belgian press. De Jonge discusses her work in a podcast (in Dutch).

Menno Fenger (2018). “The Social Policy Agendas of Populist Radical Right Parties in Comparative Perspective”, Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy

It is a stretch to say, as Fenger does, that “there has been only limited research on the attitudes of these populist radical right parties towards the welfare state”. However, the novelty in this article’s approach is its broad empirical comparison between six populist radical right parties.

The inclusion of Donald Trump as a populist radical right figure is controversial but interesting. Fenger shows a clear gap between the social policies portrayed by Trump and those of his European counterparts, despite “some European leaders highlight[ing] their association with the Trump Administration”. The strategy of adopting Trump’s language has emerged in the Flemish Interest, making it useful to include Trump here, if only to highlight how few substantive similarities exist despite the professed symbolic links.

The article raises more questions than it answers providing a starting point for further research. Why are some parties, as Fenger says, “dogmatic” whilst others are “pragmatic”? Should we include Trump in future analyses? What causes similarities in Dutch and Flemish approaches to social policy? Studies of PRRPs rarely cover such broad ground, and given the comparative aims of our own project, this article is a useful reference point.

Agnes Akkerman, Andrzej Zaslove, and Bram Spruyt (2017). “‘We the People’ or ‘We the Peoples’? A Comparison of Support for the Populist Radical Right and Populist Radical Left in the Netherlands”, Swiss Political Science Review

The authors of this article compare supporters of a populist radical right and populist radical left party in the Netherlands, the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom, PVV) and the Socialistische Partij (Socialist Party, SP) respectively. They test hypotheses on the attitudes that unite and divide these parties’ voters.

Populism in Activism Project co-investigator Stijn van Kessel has suggested that the SP has stepped away from its populist rhetoric. However, studying populism in parties on either side of the ideological spectrum is a useful way to move past preconceived notions about populism. The authors argue that, given their faith in the “people”, “a populist vote may not only be a vote against but also for something”. Both parties’ supporters hold populist attitudes and low levels of trust, but what supporters of each party are voting for differs.

Tying into Fenger’s discussions of social policy, the authors posit a certain symmetry in the welfare policies of PRR and PRL parties, hypothesizing that supporters of both support more social security benefits. However, their findings do not support this.

For those with an interest in this dynamic, other scholars have delved more deeply into the links between economic positions and populist attitudes in voters including in this article by Van Kessel and Steven Van Hauwaert.

Poster of Belgium's Vlaams Belang party: "Thanks Voters!"

Poster of Belgium’s Vlaams Belang party: “Thanks Voters!”

Dr. Mattia Zulianello, Italy focused Research Fellow

Lenka Buštíková and Petra Guasti (2019). “The State as a Firm: Understanding the Autocratic Roots of Technocratic Populism”, East European Politics and Societies

Buštíková and Guasti provide an excellent and intriguing analysis of technocratic populism, a little-studied manifestation of the populist phenomenon. Focusing on the case of Czech Republic since 1989, the authors ground a solid empirical analysis within a valuable theoretical framework, which greatly enhances our understanding of the many populist actors that do not fit the typical left-right categorization.

Technocratic populism is exemplified in the contemporary context by Andrej Babiš’ ANO 2011. This is the leading force in today’s Czech government, and “strategically uses the appeal of technocratic competence and weaponizes numbers to deliver a populist message”, which emerges “at critical junctures as an alternative to the ideology of liberal democratic pluralism”.

The authors argue that the broader appeal of technocratic populism in comparison with economic and nativist forms of populism, as well as its claim to rule in the name of “the people” on the grounds of technical expertise, make it a “sophisticated threat to liberal democracy”. In particular, by combining an emphasis on technocratic expertise with a people-centric message, this form of populism may lead to democratic backsliding by fueling civic apathy and by providing political actors with a master frame to “legitimize” concentrations of power.

Luigi Curini (2019). “The Spatial Determinants of the Prevalence of Anti-Elite Rhetoric Across Parties”, West European Politics

Spatial analyses of political competition are a true political science classic, and this article by Luigi Curini shows the utility and elegance of such approaches to the study of key aspects of contemporary party politics.

Using data from the 2014 Chapel Hill Expert Survey data, the author conceptualizes anti-elitism “as a non-policy vote-winning strategy” that has “quasi-valence” features, because they can be positively evaluated by a wide pool of voters. In light of such properties, anti-elitism is understood as a strategy that can potentially be used by any political actor with the goal of increasing their electoral appeal.

Curini’s analysis suggests that the decision of political parties to focus on anti-elitism “does not depend entirely on some inner identity; it also depends on the spatial environment in which they compete”. Indeed, this paper reveals that a given party has a higher incentive to resort to anti-elitism if it is “ideologically ‘squeezed’ among adjacent parties”. Most notably, in such a context, focusing on anti-elitism may help a political party differentiate itself from its proximate competitors in the eyes of the electorate.

Sergiu Gherghina and Sorina Soare (2019). “Electoral Performance Beyond Leaders? The Organization of Populist Parties in Post-Communist Europe”, Party Politics

Gherghina and Sorina Soare offer an excellent example of how to study the impact of leadership and organizational features on the electoral performance of populist parties.

Grounded in the qualitative analysis of primary and secondary sources, the paper focuses on three cases from post-communist Europe that present considerable differences in terms of their electoral fate: the Bulgaria Without Censorship Party, the Party of Socialists from the Republic of Moldova, and the People’s Party-Dan Diaconescu of Romania.

Rather than treating leadership and organization as a single variable, as it is often the case in the literature, the authors operate a useful and meaningful distinction between the two in their analysis. This approach makes their contribution of interest to comparativists and to scholars of populism.

Most notably, the analysis reveals that personalization and concentration of power in the hands of charismatic leaders is not sufficient to achieve electoral survival. This paper highlights that endogenous factors are important in the decline of populist parties, especially if they do not develop proper organizational structures and rely instead on the personality of their leaders.

“A Right-Wing Government in Italy in the Future”

The Wall Street Journal echoes analysis from the Populism in Action Project with its article, “Italy’s Political Rivals Reignite Feud After Coronavirus Hiatus”.

PiAP’s Dr Daniele Albertazzi summarizes, in an interview with the Journal:

Populist parties are well-placed to exploit what is coming, in Italy and everywhere else.

In a few months, [Prime Minister Giuseppe] Conte will start losing ground. I can’t see how Italy doesn’t end up with a right-wing government in the future.

The Journal evaluates the political shifts in Italy as it comes out of the worst of the Coronavirus pandemic and begins easing stay-at-home restrictions: “The unwieldy governing coalition has been squabbling over the next steps, its disunity raising doubts about its ability to avert an economic depression.”

Read full article….

Populism and the Collapse of Italy’s Coronavirus Truce

By Daniele Albertazzzi (PiAP Principal Investigator) and Mattia Zulianello (PiAP Italy focused Research Fellow) – originally for the UK in a Changing Europe blog

As an indiscriminate, sudden, and exogenous crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic has compelled media and political actors either to quickly adapt their narratives to a new scenario, or to find fresh reasons to reiterate the old tropes they already owned. In Italy, all major political parties have chosen the second option.

Following a brief political truce not dissimilar to that seen in other countries, harsh political competition has made a comeback and parties have embraced their assigned parts in the script written before this crisis struck. These vary according to whether parties support the government or not, and how they need to position themselves vis à vis their political friends and foes.

The truce ended as the first details were made public of the agreement EU governments are reaching on how to respond to the crisis caused by the pandemic. Most striking has been the competition between the populist radical right League, now in opposition after being ejected from the government in the summer, and the populist Five Star Movement, a party that is very difficult to place on the left-right scale due to its eclectic ideology. Five Star is now the dominant party within the executive and governs alongside the center-left, and fervently pro-EU, Democratic Party.

What the League and Five Star have always had in common is that they are both EU-critical in theory, albeit EU-compliant in practice. Given the difficulty of finding a solution to the present crisis acceptable to both northern and southern European governments, and with surveys suggesting roughly the same number of Italians now leaning towards Leave and Remain, the present crisis clearly provides a golden opportunity to attack the EU. However, the two parties are now in a very different place when it comes to exploiting the situation.

Until recently, Matteo Salvini’s League has found it difficult to put forward a coherent narrative about how to deal with the pandemic. For some weeks, the seriousness of the crisis and the high levels of public approval enjoyed by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte meant that, very unusually, Salvini was struggling to get attention in the national media. The overwhelming of Lombardy, a region run by the League, by the virus also militated against him raising his voice.

As the virus struck, Salvini switched from calls to tighten the borders to a premature request that normality should be restored and economic activities reopened while the virus was still spreading at speed. This was followed by a switchback for the country’s lockdown to be made stricter, less than two weeks later.

But the League was rescued by the bickering between EU finance ministers and governments on how to deal with the crisis. As soon as the idea was mooted that the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) – an institution long opposed by the party – could be used by countries badly hit by the virus to borrow funds with which to cover medical spending, Salvini ended the truce. Reviving memories of Greece’s subjugation to its creditors from 2010 onwards, the League’s leader argued that “the ESM without conditionality does not exist”, and that accepting money via this route would inevitably lead to establishing “a dictatorship in the name of the virus”. Hence the party called for the Italian Treasury to issue bonds to finance the recovery, arguing these should be fully backed by the European Central Bank.

Five Star’s Dilemma

Salvini’s reaction was predictable. Although the League voted in favor of the Lisbon Treaty when its own government brought it to Parliament in 2008, and was ultimately eager to reach an agreement with the European Commission on Italy’s budget when it returned to government in 2018, it has nevertheless embraced EU-criticism and harsh anti-EU tones in every recent electoral campaign.

This situation presents the Five Star Movement, however, with an insoluble dilemma. The script dictates that it should act as an anti-establishment party. But it lacks the skills and political personnel to do this well, especially when dominating the government.

Having criticized the ESM just as often as the League before gaining power for the first time in 2018, Five Star has voted in the EU Parliament against activating this fund. Yet it is the largest partner in a coalition government that may well draw resources from the mechanism in a few weeks’ time. If a credible argument can be made that the money is really being made available “without conditions”, as EU finance ministers have said, the Democratic Party will push for its employment. Doing so is likely to receive backing from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, a party keen to be seen as “responsible” right now to differentiate itself from its more radical allies on the right. This would force Five Star to attack Conte, the man it picked as PM back in 2018, while some from the opposition cheer him on.

“Performing crisis” may well be one of the core features of populism. When populists are in government, increasingly common in recent years, they can benefit from pitting “the people” against various enemies and by advocating strong leadership to bring crises “under control”. The dilemma for Five Star is that this cannot be done at the same time as distancing itself from the decisions of the Prime Minister.

So, as the League keeps hammering Five Star with accusations of “betrayal” of the national interest, expect the latter to try — but ultimately fail — to keep one foot in and one foot out of government in weeks to come.

Italy’s Government Still On A Knife Edge After Key Regional Elections

 by Daniele Albertazzi (PiAP Principal Investigator) & Davide Pellegrino (University of Torino) – Originally published by The Conversation

A regional election in northern Italy has delivered a blow to populist right-wing figure Matteo Salvini. But while the center-left candidate in the elections for the Emilia-Romagna region saw off the populist threat – with the help of a grassroots campaign movement called The Sardines – his party’s national government looks far from secure.

Stefano Bonaccini’s re-election as the governor of Emilia-Romagna matters because it has given hope that the erosion of the left’s traditional dominance of local politics in the four central regions once known as the red belt — Tuscany, Umbria, the Marches and Emilia-Romagna — is not unstoppable.

Emilia-Romagna is the richest, most populous and, historically, also the most solidly left-wing area in the red belt. But the right-wing League has been growing in popularity in the area, especially since Salvini took over the party in 2013.

He saw this regional election as a golden opportunity to bring down the government – a fragile coalition between the center-left Democratic Party (PD) and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S). The latter had been in national government with Salvini until their partnership collapsed in 2019 and many see the new arrangement as being geared more towards keeping Salvini away from power rather than providing a functioning administration.

Salvini therefore sought to turn this regional election into a test of whether the national government enjoyed the confidence of the electorate. A right-wing victory would have set off a campaign to force the governing parties to stand down and hold a general election.

The League has become increasingly popular in Emilia-Romagna, while the incumbent PD has been shrinking, so the vote was considered winnable by Salvini and his supporters. Pre-election polls showed the race between Bonaccini, the PD-backed candidate for the governorship, and Lucia Borgonzoni, the League’s candidate, was in fact very tight.

Sardines Against Salvini

Salvini ran a polarizing campaign, which in turn sparked a new grassroots movement on the left called the Sardines. This group was started by ordinary citizens opposed to the radicalism of Salvini’s League.

Turnout was 67.7% in this regional election – a significant increase on 2014, when just 37.7% of eligible voters took part. This mirrors recent events in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Spain, where the possibility of an electoral victory for a populist radical right-party has increased interest in politics and boosted participation.

But Bonaccini’s success appears heavily tied to his personal appeal. He himself is considerably more popular than the coalition of parties that backed his election. Meanwhile, the PD’s ally in government, the M5S, has almost disappeared in the region. It shrank to a pitiful 4.7% of the vote, while the League won 32%, similar to its share in the European elections last May. These are all bad signs for the government.

What Now for National Government?

The very poor performance of the M5S in this election, and in the other regional election held on the same day in Calabria), is bound to cause instability for the national government. The party has never done well at local and regional levels but this result, coupled with recent turmoil at the top, will be taken by many as a sign of imminent collapse.

The party’s leader, Luigi Di Maio, recently resigned, unable to command the support of the party as it slumped in the polls since entering government one and a half years ago.

Since 2018, 30 M5S parliamentarians have been fired or have quit to join the League or other groups. More could now follow, which would be deadly for a governing coalition with a very small majority in the Senate.

Even if no one leaves, internal tensions within the M5S may still bring the governing coalition to an end, as more and more Five Star representatives judge its experience in power alongside the left as a failure. Moving to the opposition benches would at least allow the M5S to recover its long-lost “purity” as an anti-establishment party

As for the PD, it is still in search of an identity and an electoral strategy 12 years after having been founded. In Emilia-Romagna, it basically owes its victory to others (particularly the incumbent governor, Bonaccini, and his ability to attract the votes of former M5S supporters).

While it is difficult to say when a general election will happen, it seems unlikely that the governing coalition can hold. The PD’s victory in Emilia-Romagna has bought it a little time, but we do not expect the two governing parties to stick together until the end of the legislature.The Conversation

Where Luigi Di Maio and Italy’s Five Star Movement Went Wrong

By Mattia Zulianello (PiAP Italy focused Research fellow) – Originally published by the LSE’s European Politics and Policy Blog

On Wednesday, Luigi Di Maio resigned as leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S). Why, in contrast to other populist parties, has M5S appears to have imploded while in office?

The Five Star Movement has been characterized as a “valence populist party“. That label has been applied because, M5S is not a “left” or “right” populist party. Instead, it is among those who predominantly, if not exclusively, compete by focusing on non-positional issues such as the fight against corruption, increased transparency, democratic reform, and moral integrity. These parties may adopt specific positions (for example, M5S’s advocacy of a basic income), but their primary and prevailing competitive emphasis is placed on their competence and performance on “valence issues”, achieving goals that are widely shared by voters.

The policy stances of valence populists are informed by an unadulterated conception of populism in which other ideological elements play a marginal or secondary role. Policies are flexible, free-floating, and often inconsistent. While valence populist parties are common in Eastern Europe — an example is ANO 2011 in the Czech Republic — M5S is the only contemporary case of this populist variety in the West.

The M5S originally emerged and remained until 2018 as an anti-system party that rejected cooperation with the other factions in the system. Five Star presented itself as a separate pole in opposition to both the center-right and center-left, declaring that it would only work with other parties on a strict issue-by-issue (and law-by-law) basis. The M5S rejected their legitimacy in the strongest terms, so fully-fledged cooperation was out of the question.

However, anti-system parties often eventually integrate into the system which they previously opposed. This is especially true for populist parties as the “new normal” in European party systems and governments. The integration and legitimation of populist parties can be a long or short process, according to the various incentives of the political system and electoral results, and it is usually accompanied by a series of programmatic and organizational reforms.

The zenith of the integration of populist parties is their entry into national office. In many cases, populist parties are able to survive this, and even to gain votes in subsequent elections. After a first disastrous experience in office (1994), Italy’s Lega benefited over time from a learning process. It now has a long record of government participation and dominates the Italian agenda. According to all polls, the party led by Matteo Salvini is by far the strongest in the country, with support estimated at 32%.

The astonishing success of Salvini is the story, first of all, of a successful process of organization: the centralization of the party machine, a cohesive dominant coalition, the socialization of its activists and elites via value infusion, and the persistence of various structures and purposes of the “old” mass party. The Lega is then capable of acting as a strategic actor well beyond the short term, and converting sudden pressures or shocks — such as the Gregoretti trial over the alleged kidnapping of migrants — into competitive weapons by making them fit its narrative.

In contrast, the crisis that the M5S has experienced since 2018, culminating in Di Maio’s resignation, is the outcome of a failed process of integration by an anti-system party despite organizational reforms and programmatic adaptation before entering office. Although M5S has implemented a form of top-down management through a strictly centralized structure, internal conflict has been a constant: its dominant coalition lacks cohesion, and it lacks the instruments to ensure value infusion among elites and activists. Its public image remains that of a conflict-ridden party.

These problems are the consequence of a flawed organisational project, incapable of effectively absorbing internal conflict. They are also linked to the peculiar nature of the Five Star Movement’s ideological profile. Valence populist parties seek to transcend left and right, and the integration into the coalition game with other parties implies choosing between one of the two sides.

M5S first governed with the right-wing Lega, then with the center-left Democratic Party (PD). While the PD had long been the sworn enemy of Five Star, cooperation between the two parties was not necessarily doomed to failure. In many cases, parties can successfully cooperate after years of reciprocal hostility. However, in the case of M5S, it led to a fiasco.

The absence of mechanisms to absorb internal conflict made it impossible to explain effectively to voters the rationale, expectations, and benefits of M5S’s strategic repositioning. The party failed to articulate a coherent and consistent message, a failure compounded by its organisational chaos.

The nature of a valence populist party is linked to the idea of communicating competence and performance in achieving widely-shared political goals. Five Star did not fulfil this idea.

The outcome is what we see today: a party that lacks a clear direction, is plagued by internal conflict, and is suffering a string of electoral debacles. M5S is learning — or at least should be learning — that agency matters, and parties remain the masters of their own success or failure.

Studying Populism and Italy’s League in Varese

Interview with Mattia Zulianello (PiAP Italy focused Research Fellow) Originally published in Varese Noi on 5 December and translated by Mattia Zulianello

Mattia Zulianello is in town to conduct a study which will keep the University of Birmingham’s researchers busy, analyzing party activism in four different European contexts.

He has this to say about the Italian political party “the League”: “The League’s system to foster participation is among the most efficient. The party congress on December 21 may have a strong impact on its grassroots.”

Zulianello, 33, is a researcher in the Department of Political Sciences and International Studies (POLSIS) at the University of Birmingham. The author of several books and academic articles, he and his colleagues around Europe are working on a project funded by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council): “The Survival of the Mass Party” (the Populism in Action Project).

Research will analyze four political parties: The League in Italy, the UDC-SVP in Switzerland, the Vlaams Belang in Belgium, and the Finns Party in Finland.

Zulianello explains: “We seek to understand what makes people participate in political life as activists — on the one hand, to establish why the representatives of a party care so much about the organizational structure, and on the other, to discern the purpose and meaning of activism”.

Zulianello will interview the League’s activists and representatives in various locations. He will start from Varese, where the party which was Umberto Bossi’s took its first steps, to then move on to Veneto and Emilia “following the logic of interviewing activists in a big city, where a historical stronghold of the League is located, as well as in a small town or rural area in its surroundings”.

Questions for activists will focus on concrete matters: entry into the League, reasons for staying in it, the views of its leaders, the way the organization works, the meaning of political participation (whether it is staffing a gazebo or giving out leaflets).

The researcher says of the risk that there might be “infiltrators” in the party:

The League probably has one of the most intelligent systems of screening because it is structured on two membership levels.

It’s a very efficient model. To enter the League you need to start by being a supporter member. After fifteen months you can become an activist member, but this request needs to be approved at the provincial, national, and federal levels.

A “true” Leghista is evaluated on the grounds of his/her effective activism and this makes the whole organizational system really efficient.

Zulianello has already met representatives of the League in Varese. He will return to the city in the next few months to meet with activists.

The League’s congress in Varese on December 21 illustrates how activists are reacting to proposals about the changing goals of the party. How will they respond to leader Matteo Salvini, “who in some respects is better known than the party itself”?

Zulianello says, “Changing the party’s statute carries a very strong symbolic meaning. Making some changes — that at first seem insignificant, such as changing ‘Nations”’into ‘Regional Territorial Articulations’ — can have a significant impact on the grassroots”.