European Union

Matteo Salvini’s hold over Italy is more fragile than it seems

The far-right may be gaining ground, but they do not yet represent public opinion, neither is their ascendancy inevitable.

To read most newspapers you’d think it was a done deal. Italy, or so the story goes, has fallen head over heels for the far-right. After years of frustration under the old party system, the consensus has been blown open. Insurgent populists, with a distinctly xenophobic tinge, have gained ground and now enjoy the support of large swathes of the citizenship. With the Five Star Movement wavering, abandoned by the liberal portion of their support base, Matteo Salvini, the national ‘strong man’, has consolidated his grip on power. With his Lega obtaining 34% percent in the European elections, and a surge for Fratelli d’Italia to 6.4%, there’s a sense that if an election were held in the next months, the country would be thrown into an actual fascist-style government.

This is not, to be clear, an unwarranted fear. Far from it in fact. The gains of both of these nationalist parties has been extraordinary. Proper analysis of why and how they have done so well are urgent and important. With growing incidents of hate crime – anti-Semitic, racially motivated and homophobic violence – the air is toxic. Civil society continues to be chipped away. RAI, the state broadcaster, not to mention La 7, operate as propagandists for the new right. The judiciary is under attack, along with the freedom of the press, and intellectuals. While comparisons might be made with Poland and Hungary, the contexts, in both economic and cultural terms, are quite different. For Italians panic is understandable, but only to a certain point. The picture does not have to be as bleak as the national lament would have it.

The triumph of pessimism

To start with, the numbers are more complex than they might first appear. Using the EU elections again as a barometer, Salvini won 9 million votes in a country of over 60 million people, where the registered electorate is 51 million. However strong the gains – and while Salvini is the most popular individual politician – this hardly constitutes “the will of the Italian people”. The real victors, as it were, and perhaps the biggest losers of all, were the non-voters. Abstaining and anti-political sentiment remains the hegemonic force in Italy. This, by the way, is a long-term trend. As Paul Ginsborg noted in a piece for openDemocracy last year, the decline in democratic participation is a deep and systemic process resulting from decades of declining trust in the political class.

Then there is the centre-left PD, which under Matteo Renzi embraced neoliberalism, hollowed out party-pluralism and largely ignored the plights of young people, migrants and the working class. The fact that they won 23% is miraculous. Given the scale of loss from 2014, however, when the PD obtained almost double that, it is a little ridiculous to celebrate, as some have been. If there is any silver lining it is that they did maintain support in almost all of the major cities: Milan, Turin, Genova, Bologna, Florence and Rome. Despite a surge for the right, these metropolitan centres all held strong against the Salvini tide and remain viable bases from which to grow alternatives.

The most interesting and subtle phenomenon, though, can be seen in split votes. While the Lega did perform exceptionally well in the EU ballot, they failed to consolidate this in the local elections of the very same day. While most international media were making bold and often apocalyptic proclamations about Italy, they missed the fact that 75% of those who voted Lega in the international election voted the PD locally (Source: La Repubblica 30.05.19). Clearly many people were driven by a Brexit-like-desire to express their rejection of neoliberalism and wanted to send a message to that effect. At the same time, though, many fell short of trusting the far-right with responsibility over their money and their futures. While there are some major exceptions to this – Ferrara, for example, has just fallen to the Lega after almost 70 years of leftist rule – the general trend is important to keep in mind.

For now the PD is a placeholding position, biding its time, hoping to absorb abstainers, and bits of the Five Star vote through a kind of passive osmosis. With growing economic unrest, including the prospect of sanctions from the European Union to the tune of 3bn euros, their strategy seems to be to wait out the storm. This will likely be ineffective. Firstly, in the event of further economic woes it’s highly likely Salvini will simply shift the blame onto his coalition partners who, after all, guard the proverbial treasuries. Any punitive measures from Brussels, meanwhile, would only fuel anti-European sentiment. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons the nationalist-Lexit-esque arguments in Italy make so little sense. Leaving aside the moral case for reforming the EU, it is surely naive to think the left can capitalise on opposing such a stance. Thanks to Salvini’s propaganda if nothing else, anti-EU sentiment is now intrinsically tied to the far right.

Green, socialist, transnational

The PD, and other political formations, have an opportunity. For once the European Parliament provides a nugget of hope. Salvini’s ENF/EAPN were aiming to be the second largest group. In the end they came in 5th, behind the greens. More than any other take-away from those elections, this fact seems to indicate the potential for real political mobilisation. In Italy, the green party is a minority vehicle. None of the major political forces have really honoured their pledges towards the environment. Nevertheless, thousands have joined Greta Thunberg’s school strikes in piazzas, and other mobilisations and Italians are increasingly concerned by precisely hese questions. Given the absence of institutional vehicles for such grievances there is, in other words, real space to outflank Salvini. This has potential even on the Lega’s home turf. In the industrial towns of the pianura padana, for example, where the air pollution is some of the worst in Europe, the left could make obvious ground by speaking to this reality. Confronting environmental devastation is an existential necessity, but it is also a strategic opportunity for the left.

Then there is the question of constituencies. While the big cities remain heartlands for resistance, there is no time for complacency. Far right groups have been quite effective at campaigning in the suburbs and poorer neighbourhoods. The left must also find ways to connect with these people and demonstrate concrete assistance – volunteer clean-ups, debates, other grassroots welfare initiatives – to demonstrate solidarity between wealthier leftists and those who have been left behind. Only thus can they encourage people to turn up on election day.  The same is true on a larger-scale looking at the national geography. The south of Italy has for too long been treated as a hopeless case, dominated by mafia and with little potential to lead the way in terms of progressive alternatives. The triumph of the Five Star Movement here should shatter such a stereotype. These places can no longer be forgotten. With concrete proposals, with a sensitivity to historical inequalities, there is surely the scope for a growth. Leaders in cities like Palermo, Naples and Bari – like the inspirational Leoluca Orlando – must be further empowered, and the northern elites must listen to them.

Winning over a mass of disenfranchised voters will require principled action. Salvini’s success is premised on precisely the illusion of this. He is plastic but appears to defend ‘values’ like few other figures in Italian politics. Beyond environmental concerns there are other continent-wide principles to defend: peace, democracy, and pluralism are three of the most obvious. Neoliberalism has hollowed these ideas out, paving the way for the far-right, but they have not been forgotten altogether. Demonstrating that these are more than just platitudes is the political imperative of our time. Those struggling to make such a case should not lose sight of the fact that when non-voters are included, the majority of the Italian citizens have not decided to support Matteo Salvini. The crude idea that Italy has been seduced by the far right is certainly true, but only in a limited sense. Such organisations are loud but they remain a minority. There is scope to overturn them yet.


Jamie Mackay
Jamie Mackay is a writer and translator based in Italy. He is a contributor to openDemocracy, The New Statesman, VICE, Il Manifesto among others and a Press Coordinator at European Alternatives.