Reports of the demise of Italian populism are greatly exaggerated

9 October 2021

1:23 PM

9 October 2021

1:23 PM

Britain’s newspapers have called the results of the local elections in Italy the death of populism. The Times, for example, grandly proclaims that the Italian elections this week ‘appear to have brought down the curtain on an experiment in anti-establishment politics that inspired populist movements around the world.’ The Guardian, meanwhile, wonders joyfully if what has occurred signals ‘a renaissance’ for the left.

I am sorry to have to ruin the party but yet again the mainstream media have got it wrong.

The fact that the Italian left, whose main component is the post-communist Partito Democratico (PD), retained Milan plus Bologna and Naples, where the left has governed for donkey’s years, is neither here nor there. Nor will it be big news if the left wins in Rome, Turin and Trieste – which go to a second ballot later in October.

The right – led by populists – is ahead after the first round in Rome and Trieste. And the right – led by Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia – won in Calabria which was the only region up for grabs.

What we are seeing in Italy is the death of left-wing populism as manifested by the alt-left Movimento 5 Stelle.

Five Star, as it is called in English, had a disastrous election. In fact, it was virtually wiped out. But it had already been reduced to a vegetative state and remained alive only because of its alliances with sworn enemies.

It was only ever populist in words, never in deeds.

Look at Five Star’s very beautiful Virginia Raggi, who swanned in from nowhere, aged 38, to be elected mayor of Rome in 2016.

Five years later, with wild boar roaming the streetsamid the uncollected rubbish and buses going up in flames , Raggi did not even make it to the second ballot.

In Turin, where the outgoing mayor was another young Five Star woman, the party got just 9 per cent of the vote compared to 30 per cent in 2016.

It is true that the radical-right Lega – also a populist party – had a poor election especially in Milan, its powerbase and the home of Matteo Salvini, where it had had high hopes of leading a coalition of the right to victory. But the Lega is not anywhere near death row, let alone on life support. Its vote share in Milan, for example, was barely down from the last city elections in 2016.

The reason the Lega did not do well is not, as foreign journalists are so often quick to assume, because Italians want more centrist government. The Lega’s problem now is that it has not been populist or radical enough.

Ever since its leader Matteo Salvini joined the unelected national unity government which came to power in February, led by the ex-boss of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, he has been forced to agree to things his party exists to oppose.

What commentators seem to be ignoring is that Italy has another right-wing populist party: Fratelli d’Italia, which is very much alive and kicking and just happens to be the most popular party in Italy in the polls. Fratelli d’Italia was the only major party to refuse to join the Draghi government and is reaping the benefits.

At the 2018 general election, it got just 4 per cent of the vote. Yet for many months now it has led the polls nationally, and is currently on about 21 per cent, just ahead of the Lega and the PD – with Five Star well behind.

This makes its leader Giorgia Meloni, as likely head of a coalition with the Lega and Forza Italia (polling roughly 7 per cent), hot favourite to be the next Italian Prime Minister after the next general election which must be held before June 2023.

In Rome, the coalition of the right led by the Fratelli d’Italia candidate, Enrico Michetti, got the most votes in the first round with 30 per cent. Meanwhile, Rachele Mussolini, granddaughter of the fascist dictator, standing for re-election as a Rome city councillor, got more preference votes than any other candidate. Elsewhere, Fratelli d’Italia saw its share of the vote increase significantly in Milan, Turin and Bologna.

While the media prattle on wishfully about the demise of Italian populism and the renaissance of the Italian left, the leaders of the left remain notably silent about holding a general election to replace the unelected Prime Minister Mario Draghi. It is above all the populist post-fascist Meloni – inspired these days as I wrote recently not by the revolutionary socialist Benito Mussolini who founded fascism, but by the conservative English philosopher Sir Roger Scruton – who is champing at the bit to call a general election.

On Facebook, after the results were in, Meloni challenged the leaders of the PD to agree to an immediate general election: ‘Are you perhaps afraid? Seeing as how in recent years you have done everything possible to avoid a confrontation with Fratelli d’Italia and the centre-right coalition at national elections.’

The PD is polling consistently around 18 per cent but, unlike Fratelli d’Italia, it has no significant allies with whom to form a coalition – except the dying Five Star which was its sworn enemy until the day before yesterday. That it should want to postpone a general election for as long as possible is hardly surprising since without such allies it cannot possibly win.

So it looks like the curtain is coming down in Italy not just on anti-establishment left-wing populism but on the establishment left as well. Right-wing populism just keeps rolling on.

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