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….

“Right-Wing Populist Parties Are Here to Stay”

The Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad features an interview with the Populism in Action Project’s Stijn van Kessel, “Right-Wing Parties Are Here to Stay”.

Van Kessel summarizes that populist ideas are widespread among the population, but are often latent. They await mobilization by a party: “You need an entrepreneur to fuel those ideas, for example, by constantly proclaiming that the elite are cheating on the people. ”

Echoing the initial analyses of PiAP, he speaks about the challenge for populist parties amid the Coronavirus pandemic:

In times of crisis, people typically rally behind their leaders. For the time being, many populist parties in Europe are relatively quiet because there is little political gain in attacking a government that enjoys strong support from the population.

But that can quickly change again if it turns out that the government made culpable mistakes or took wrong measures during this crisis.

PiAP’s co-investigator adds, “Right-wing populist themes, such as migration and ethnic diversity, have not suddenly disappeared….And then there will also be an economic crisis.”

And when the supposed populist outsiders become the insiders, but face the difficulty of governing? Van Kessel explains:

The challenge for them is [still] to present themselves as outsiders and to stand up to the establishment.

It’s all about finding other enemies, another elite.

Read full interview….

Support for Europe’s Leaders During Coronavirus Crisis — But Will It Last?

Euronews reports on support for European leaders despite high levels of deaths in their countries from Coronavirus.

The article draws on analysis from the Populism in Action Project’s Daniele Albertazzi:

This is the most serious crisis that has hit Europe since the Second World War. It is quite well-known that in times of crisis, people do tend to rally behind the flag and the government of the day.

Governments have been very shrewd and clever in exploiting this and using metaphors that remind people of war-time periods, so the virus has become an enemy that the population has to defeat by pulling together.”

Right now people on the streets are saying that this is not the moment to have a go at the government.

But Albertazzi draws on findings from PiAP, featured in a series on EA WorldView, to consider possible challenges ahead for those in power.

“You can see in countries like Italy, Switzerland, and Finland that there has been a short period of truce between governments and opposition or more radical and more moderate parties,” he says. “As weeks go past, people will start realizing the enormous financial effect of the crisis as more and more stories emerge about the mishandling of the pandemic and the big mistakes that were made by governments.”

Populist parties face their own challenges, after they “seemed to have initially accepted that they needed to tone down their criticisms of governments or their opponents”, if they try to use Coronavirus to assume power.

It is easy to have a go at governments, opponents or the European Union. But there is certainly a risk that populist parties might jump on the bandwagon of criticism too early and misjudge the mood of the public.”

This is a crisis of such huge proportions that we may still be in the stage where the public and business associations want to see more unity rather than division.

At same time, he assesses, “They have to demonstrate that they have remained fundamentally different from what they see as traditional parties.”

“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….

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”.

Populist Parties as “The New Normal”: An Interview with Mattia Zulianello

Mattia Zulianello (PiAP’s Italy focused Research Fellows) talks with Political Observer about populist parties and how they integrate into the systems of their respective countries, even as they present themselves as anti-elitist?

PO: In your study, you calculate that in Europe 2/3rds of contemporary populist parties are integrated in their political systems, while only 1/3rd are relegated to the margins. Is it possible to claim that populist parties are the “new normal”? And how can you explain that populism relies on anti-elitist concepts while being part of the political system?

MZ: To some extent, yes: populist parties are the “new normal”.

In many countries, populist parties are required to give life to governmental majorities. Once favorable political conditions exist, a process of legitimation between the populists and the major non-populist actor(s) can replace years of reciprocal hostility.

This can occur very rapidly. In some countries the populists really dominate the electoral arena, in particular in Italy and Hungary. In others, despite their limited electoral strength – they still dominate the media arena.

So the increasing integration of populist parties into national political systems is part of a broader process of the normalization and legitimation of populism by more “conventional” partisan actors, such as centre-right and centre-left parties, but also in the media and public debate.

This is particularly evident in the case of populist radical right parties, given the unprecedented importance of nativism in the public debate; in the agendas of more traditional competitors; and even at the European Union level, as shown by the recent controversies over the new portfolio for “protecting our European way of life”.

However, this does not mean that the normalization and legitimation of populism is limited to the right side of the political spectrum. Albeit less evident in comparison with those mobilizing immigration and cultural issues, populist parties of other varieties now set the public agenda in many countries.

This is due to two major reasons. First, in most cases perception is more important than reality, such as immigration numbers vs. perception of immigration or objective economic indicators vs .the feeling of relative deprivation). Second, the moralistic rather than programmatic emphasis of populism fits well with the insatiable demand for spectacle by journalists in an age of “hybrid media systems“.

Over-representation in the media is precisely what should be avoided, and the strategy of over-demonization does not work either: populists — whether of the right, left, or valence variety — seek media attention, and the media, in most cases, give them exactly what they want. In many cases this is also true of us as political scientists: we ascribe a disproportionate importance to marginal actors and events.

PO: How does populism rely on anti-elitist concepts while being part of the political system?

MZ: Anti-elitism, or an anti-establishment attitude, is a key part of the identity and profile of a populist party. If a populist party ceases to be anti-elitist, it also ceases to be populist.

The key point is how the populists can remain credible in their anti-elitism despite integration. Despite the ongoing parroting of the frames and style of populists in some policy areas by more conventional parties, voters usually prefer the original rather than the copy.

Simply put, anti-elitism needs to be credibly articulated. This is easier when populist parties effectively qualify as anti-system parties and are at the margins. It is less easy when they become “coalitionable”, and it becomes much more complex when they hold national office. However, even though in many cases the policy achievements of populist parties in office are limited, they can remain credible in the electoral market if they preserve organizational cohesion and manage to deliver the image of being “proactive” actors, irrespective of the actual outcomes.

This can be achieved by adopting a narrative such as “We (really) tried to do y, but for x reasons (independent of our control) it was not possible.” This often takes the form of blame-shifting directed against “the elites”, “the deep state”, or “strong powers”.

Paradoxically, this can contribute to the sustainability of anti-elitism, despite the visible integration of populist parties into national political systems. It is shown by the recent strategy adopted by Matteo Salvini following the failed attempt by the Lega to force new elections in Italy, but also by Alexis Tsipras following his U-turn after the 2015 Greek bailout referendum.

It must be emphasized that this strategy works only if the party manages to contain internal conflict and articulate a consistent and clear message to the voters. The latter has been successfully achieved by various populist parties across Europe; however, it is difficult, as shown by the Austrian FPÖ in 2002 or the Greek Orthodox Rally in 2012.

These maneuvers require strategic and leadership skills, but populist parties are increasingly able to cope with the pressures both of cooperation with non-populist parties and of participation in government.

PO: Let’s have a closer look at the 66 parties you identify as populist. Where are they positioned on the left-right political spectrum? And which are those parties that you call “valence populism”?

MZ: Among the 66 parties I analysed in my article, the vast majority can be located on the right-side of the political spectrum (68.2%).

Among this broad category, the most populated sub-group is represented by populist radical right parties (31), followed by national-conservative populists (10), and a few neo-liberal populists (4).

Only 16.7% of contemporary populist parties are found on the left portion of the political spectrum. A tiny majority of them (6) qualify as typical “social populists”, while the others (5) combine socialism with some form of nationalism.

Finally, for the remaining populist actors (15.1%), I introduce the term of “valence populist parties”, building upon the insights of Kenneth Roberts. Such parties are commonly found in Central and Eastern Europe, with prominent examples including GERB in Bulgaria, ANO 2011 in the Czech Republic, and the List of Marjan Šarec in Slovenia.

Perhaps the best example is the Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy. M5S cannot be located in positional terms across the left-right political space, and various studies have outlined its ideological flexibility and eclecticism. The same applies to many parties in Central and Eastern Europe, which, like M5S, over-emphasize non-positional issues such as competence, performance, and anti-corruption.

These features are almost identical to those evoked by the existing definition of a “centrist populist party”, but this is misleading because valence populists lack a clear positioning. Sure, they are not left nor right, but they cannot be located in the “center” either.

Valence populists may well adopt specific positions. However, in contrast to an unadulterated (or pure) version of populism, positions adopted by parties such as the M5S are flexible, free-floating, often inconsistent, and very much influenced by the structure of political opportunity. M5S’s recent and prompt shift from a government coalition with the populist radical right Lega to one with the center-left Democratic Party provides clear evidence for these features.

PO: When speaking of populism, there is much confusion around terms and definitions. Can you tell us what features distinguish populist parties vis-à-vis anti-establishment, challenger, and outsider parties?

MZ: Well, tons of ink could be spent in reply to this question. To avoid this, I will try to focus on the most important differences, while inviting the reader to see my article for further details.

First, it is very important to underline that none of the three terms are synonyms, even though they are often treated as such. I realized the extreme degree of confusion characterizing the conceptual debate on “anti” during my PhD thesis, which was published as a book by Routledge this year.

Although there are different conceptualizations of the terms “challenger’ and ‘outsider” parties, the most common approaches refer to a specific location of a party in the party system: in the case of the former, the absence of governmental experience; in the latter, the exclusion from the coalition game.

As I highlight in my article, populist parties are not necessarily challengers nor outsiders. On the contrary, around 40% of contemporary populist parties have government experience — and this percentage is rising) — while about 2/3rs are variously integrated in visible cooperative interactions in the political system. This includes, but is not limited to, the ability and willingness to use coalition potential, participation in pre-electoral coalitions, or full participation in national office with the major parties in the system.

Finally, “anti-establishment” depends on how we define the term. If we use it to indicate, inter alia, the unwillingness of a party to cooperate with the “mainstream”, then populist parties are not necessarily anti-establishment; only a minority would qualify as such. However, if we avoid assuming specific behavioral tendencies and use the term to refer only to the ideology of a given party — which is more appropriate, in my view — then populist parties are always anti-establishment in ideational terms, given their emphasis on anti-elitism.

The point is that this ideational orientation is increasingly disjointed from the role of a populist actor in the party system. In other words, for many populist parties, the anti-establishment ideology is not accompanied by an anti-establishment (or uncompromising) behavior.

PO: To go beyond the existing problems with the anti-establishment characteristics of populist parties, you propose a new classification: non-integrated, negatively integrated, and positively integrated populist parties. Which kind of parties belong to the three groups? Why is this classification more precise than previous ones?

MZ: My new classification was inspired precisely by the increasing integration of various types of political parties without the concomitant occurrence of substantial ideological moderation, something that was somehow overlooked in the classical works of Giovanni Sartori.

This led me to the development of a revisited concept of anti-system party. This later served as the foundation for the comprehensive empirical analyses of the challenges faced by such parties that I carried out in my book.

Subsequently, I realized that a fruitful field of application was the comprehensive analysis of the different interaction streams characterizing contemporary populist parties, especially in the light of the terminological and conceptual confusion in the academic debate.

Following Sartori’s classical conception, populist parties — at least in fully liberal-democratic contexts — would qualify by definition as anti-system, given his focus on party propaganda. However, empirical reality suggests that there are huge differences among populist parties in terms of the actual role played in their own national contexts.

Following my conceptualization, I consider anti-system only the populist parties that, in addition to questioning crucial elements of the status quo — most notably the liberal-representative elements of the political regime — are also at the margins of the party system. These are “non-integrated” populist parties, which do not simply challenge the system in ideational terms but also adopt an uncompromising, antagonistic posture vis-à-vis “the system parties”. These represent a systemic constraint, especially in view of a possible extension of the area of government, such as Human Shield in Croatia and the Sweden Democrats.

However, only a minority of contemporary European populist parties are actually anti-system in my conceptualization. The vast majority of them are integrated into the national political systems, meaning that they are involved in important and very visible cooperative interactions at the systemic level, which indicate that they have crossed the threshold of legitimation.

But the integration of populist parties can be either “negative” or “positive”. In fully-fledged liberal democracies, the integration of populist parties is invariably of the “negative” type because, despite their involvement in cooperative interactions, they remain ideologically opposed to one or more key features of the status quo. Commonly, this is the political regime, but in some cases this also encompasses the configuration of the political community or the (capitalist) economic system. Notable examples of negatively integrated populist parties are the Five Star Movement and the Lega in Italy, Podemos in Spain, and the Swiss People’s Party.

On the other hand, in flawed democracies or non-democracies, the integration of populist parties well be of the “positive” type. Given the illiberal nature of such regimes, their ideational profile may be in a symbiotic relationship with the status quo, its values, and practices, as shown in particular by the case of Fidesz in Hungary.

Hence, the utility of my classification is the capacity of distinguishing the very different roles played by populist parties in contemporary party systems, rather than forcing this heterogeneity into over-simplistic assumptions that in the end unrelated to the empirical reality.

For instance, the Lega is a paradigmatic case of a negatively-integrated populist party. However, even though it is the oldest parliamentary party in Italy and has a long record of participation in national governments, it is still considered by some scholars as a “challenger” or “outsider” party…

PO: Talking of positively-integrated populist parties, you write that “in hybrid or fully authoritarian contexts, populist parties may well be ‘positively’ integrated into the system, meaning that they share its underlying values, as shown by the cases of Hungary, Russia and Serbia”. What are the implications of this finding for the future of liberal democracy in Europe, in particular concerning popular sovereignty and pluralism?

MZ: This finding is simultaneously intriguing and disheartening. Whereas the authoritarian nature of the Russian regime is not the consequence of populism, in the cases of Hungary and Serbia the process of de-democratization was actively pursued and achieved by the ruling populist parties: Fidesz and the Serbian Progressive Party, respectively.

As I argue in the article, “these parties changed the sources of legitimation upon which the political regime itself is built”. Clearly, this was decisively favored by the recent democratization of both the countries, but in the case of Hungary this occurred in an European Union member state. This what I find particularly disturbing.

Commenting on the outcome of the 2019 European Parliament elections, Martin Selmayr, then Secretary-General of the European Commission, declared that the “populist wave…was contained”. However, leaving aside that the de-democratization of Hungary would not have been possible without the (in)actions of the European People’s Party, this statement well summarizes the limited vision of non-populist parties and politicians: their focus is placed on short-term electoral. Meanwhile, populism has already profoundly changed the political debate in the EU, and even transformed a country located in the very heart of the European Union into a “(competitive) authoritarian regime”.


Has Italy’s New Government Pushed Aside Matteo Salvini?

On Thursday, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte accepted a mandate to form a new coalition — one without the Lega party, Matteo Salvini. Populism in Action’s Dr. Daniele Albertazzi was interviewed about this for Turkey’s international TV news channel

Salvini, who has transformed Lega from a regional party for the north into a national force, gambled by bringing down the government in a split with his partner, the Five Star Movement.

But Five Star reached a deal with the centrist Democratic Party, which led the government until June 2018. And Conte, in an apparent jab at Salvini, vowed to lead a “more united, inclusive” Italy: “It will be a government for the good of the citizens, to modernise the country, to make our nation even more competitive internationally, but also more just, more supportive and more inclusive.”

Last week Conte, a law professor appointed as an “independent” to hold together the coalition, said in Parliament that Salvini had created a political crisis for “personal and party interests”.

So has Salvini’s quest to fashion himself as the leader of right-wing populism, often bashing both immigrants and the European Union, been halted?

Why Italy’s Salvini Will Survive His Russia Money Scandal?

by Shane Croucher for Newsweek. featuring Populism in Action’s Dr. Daniele Albertazzi.

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s co-Deputy Prime Minister, Interior Minister and chairman of the far-right Lega (the League) Party, will survive the Russia money scandal that currently engulfs him and stay on course to become Prime Minister within months, according to an expert on the country’s politics.

BuzzFeed News obtained a recording of a meeting between Italians — including a close aide of Salvini’s, his former spokesman Gianluca Savoini — and Russians to discuss a deal that would have sent illicit oil money from Russia to the League for its European elections campaign.

The meeting took place in Moscow in October 2018 at the same time as a visit by Salvini to the Russian capital where he met with President Vladimir Putin. Salvini, whose party is now under investigation, has threatened to sue for libel over the reports, according to The Guardian.

The League’s coalition partners, the populist Five Star Movement, said they would only support a Parliamentary inquiry into the Russia deal — which apparently never came to fruition — if it covered the financing of all parties in Italy.

“Which is a way of saying no,” Dr. Daniele Albertazzi, an expert on Italian politics at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., told Newsweek. “Such an inquiry would take years, and would soon turn into a mess.”

Salvini, a hardline nationalist whose rising popularity comes off the back of his anti-immigration stance, particularly his opposition to allowing any more migrants or refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea to enter Italy, aspires to the country’s Prime Ministership.

He is unashamedly pro-Russia and pro-Putin, and has sought closer ties between Rome and Moscow. When reports of the Moscow meeting first emerged in L’Espresso in February, Savoini dismissed them as “fake news”. Now, with the BuzzFeed tape, there is hard evidence.

According to a transcript of the recorded meeting, one of the unidentified Russians referred to Salvini as “the European Trump, because he has now become the head of all the ultra-right [in Europe]”. The Russians appeared to be liaising with the Kremlin over the proposed deal.

Salvini’s party currently has momentum in Italian politics. At the European Parliament elections in May, the League topped the polls and won over three million more votes than the center-left Democratic Party in second place. The Five Star Movement came third.

“I do not see this harming Salvini’s popularity,” Albertazzi, who expects the current coalition government to fall in the autumn over the budget or regional independence, told Newsweek:

Italians have other worries, and anyway, a lot of people will buy the line that this is all fake.

In any case, there is no smoking gun — so far — hat any money has in fact been paid, and no, I don’t think he will resign, nor that it will harm his chances of becoming PM, which I think is realistic to expect by spring next year.