Italy remains without a government. While the election in March resulted in gridlock, one overall winner still emerged – the League. Under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, the party has been transformed. What could this mean for Italy’s politics? Lindsay Mackenzie considers the issues.


With no fewer than 60 governments since the end of the Second World War, Italy is no stranger to dysfunctional politics. The election on 4 March was no exception. In what was a victory for anti-establishment, populist and radical-right parties, the 5-Star Movement swept the south of the country, emerging as the largest single party. The League (or Lega in Italian), a member of the broader right-wing coalition which won the most votes overall, did well in the north. Together, these parties gained almost 50 percent. Throw in the support for the far-right Brothers of Italy – which has roots you can trace back to Mussolini’s fascists – and a majority of the population voted for parties railing against the status quo.

But with Italy’s new, and rather complicated, electoral system (a combination of proportional representation and first-past-the-post), and with no party or coalition achieving the necessary majority to govern, the country is still without a government. While Italian President Sergio Mattarella recently started talks on forming one, gridlock remains. Bickering between the various political parties has complicated the formation of a viable majority. It is not clear how the current impasse will be resolved.


Once the dominant force on the right in Italian politics, Mr Berlusconi and his party were overtaken by its junior partner, the League. The new leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, has transformed the party.

Whatever happens, the March election confirmed a major shift in Italian politics. In the run up to the vote, the return of Silvo Berlusconi – leader of Forza Italia, another member of the right-wing coalition – dominated the headlines. Although banned from taking office due to a fraud conviction, Mr Berlusconi was regarded as a kingmaker in any potential post-election deal. He was even seen by Brussels as a stable force in an otherwise rocky political climate. But the election result was a massive blow for Mr Berlusconi. Once the dominant force on the right in Italian politics, he and his party were overtaken by its junior partner, the League. It is fair to say that the new leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, has transformed the party. In 2013, it looked on the ropes. Now it is a powerbroker in its own right. Mr Salvini may even become Italy’s new Prime Minister.

With Mr Salvini and his party regarded by many as unpalatable, it is worth asking: what happened to take us to this point?

THE PARTY OF THE NORTH

The League (or Northern League as it was known until recently), was formed in the early 1990s. A regionalist populist party, it emerged out of the collapse of Italy’s ‘first Republic’ and the ‘clean hands’ investigations that revealed corruption at the heart of the Italian establishment. Arrests were made across politics and business in a political earthquake on a scale not repeated in Europe since. These events are essential to understanding contemporary Italy. The mismanagement of resources and money, the sleaze and crookedness, all fed into a growing public disenchantment, anger and apathy over the nation’s politics. Large, mainstream parties with rich histories – the equivalent of UK Labour and Conservative – disappeared from the political scene. Italian politics would never be the same again.


The League’s founder, the charismatic and provocative Umberto Bossi, shaped the party around a specific northern identity which was under threat from various ‘others’; southerners, migrants, even bureaucrats in Rome.

This was the perfect environment for the untainted League and its anti-centralist, anti-statist message. The League’s founder, the charismatic and provocative Umberto Bossi, shaped the party around a specific northern identity which was under threat from various ‘others’; southerners, migrants, even bureaucrats in Rome, who were derided as corrupt parasites. This geographical division of Italy – advanced north, backward south – underpinned the party’s discourse, and informed its stated desire for greater northern autonomy, and even independence.

NORTHERN INDEPENDENCE

The notional independent state depicted by the League was known as Padania, and made up most of the Po Valley in the north of the country. Despite essentially being a constructed ‘heartland’ – Italy has no history of political regionalism – it was portrayed as a region with its own culture, history and unity. The League gave it a flag, an anthem, and various other pillars of identity.

The narratives accompanying this effort were as based on a xenophobic and ethnocentric resentment of the south, which was described as backward, lazy, and Mediterranean. By comparison, the north was depicted as hardworking, entrepreneurial, moral. Slogans like ‘When a people like those of Padania are on the move, history bends’ appeared in many a party manifesto. Mr Bossi declared Padania independent at a speech in 1996.


A League rally in Pontida, Lombardy, a stronghold for the party. April 2013. Image: Fabio Visconti [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Yet the League’s leader was also a tactical opportunist. The party’s narrative was not always straightforward, making it difficult to categorise. It had a habit of changing policy emphasis depending on the political climate of the time. It was pro-European but also Eurosceptic; pro-business but anti-globalisation. And its railing against the inefficiencies of the Italian state was balanced with a pragmatic approach to governing.

Indeed, the party gained considerable experience at subnational and national levels of rule. It even took part in the 1994 coalition government – the first of Italy’s ‘second Republic’ – thanks to an invitation from Mr Berlusconi. In sum, it is fair to say that in comparison to many other populist parties across Europe, the League has been surprisingly successful.

THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD

While the strength of autonomy and independence rhetoric would fluctuate over time, the League’s anti-immigration and racist slurs became more prominent and ugly. From the late 1990s onwards, the League increasingly linked immigrants to crime, drugs and prostitution. Crude posters with slogans including ‘No to the Hordes!’ become commonplace in the party’s literature. The fact that migrant labour was integral to the economy of the north mattered little. As the migrant crisis gained prominence, Mr Bossi stated at one point that migrant boats landing in Sicily could be halted by a few cannon shots. It wasn’t pretty.

In 2012, Mr Bossi’s rule came to an abrupt end. He stepped down as leader after a fraud scandal engulfed the party and his family – rather ironic given the League’s anti-corruption message. In the 2013 national elections, the party achieved – perhaps in way of punishment – only 4 percent of the vote. In the same year, Matteo Salvini took over the leadership. At this point, expectations for the League’s future were not particularly high.


Migrants arriving in Lampedusa, an Island in the Mediterranean Sea, southern Italy. It has become a major transit point for irregular immigration from Africa and the Middle East. Image: Vito Manzari [CC BY 2.0]

But Mr Salvini has rebranded the party, tweaking its ideology along the way. The anti-southern rhetoric that once defined the League has been replaced by a more nationwide mantra revolving around the defence of Italian security and identity. Forget the focus on the north: ahead of last month’s election, it was ‘Italy first’. The League’s hostility is now directed towards those outside Italy’s national borders, not those within them. Any talk of autonomy – let alone independence – has been dropped. Mr Salvini has gone as far as to apologise for the party’s previous language used against southerners – including his own. A sister organisation was even set up by the League to compete in local elections – called ‘Us With Salvini’ – in an attempt to detoxify the party brand.

Mr Salvini has also looked beyond Italy in reframing his party. He has positioned the League as being part of a wider populist radical-right family, thus distancing himself from his predecessor. While Mr Bossi was suspicious of the likes of the French National Front (too centralised, too statist), Mr Salvini has embraced them. And while Mr Bossi trained his sights on ‘thieving Rome’, Salvini’s League mirrors its compatriots in France, Germany, and the Netherlands in opportunistically targeting Brussels and the euro currency. A selective degree of Euroscepticism is now a key pillar of the party. The other is opposing immigration.


At a recent rally in Rome, Mr Salvini said he was “sick of seeing the immigrants in the hotels and the Italians who sleep in cars”.

Indeed, anti-immigration and nativist rhetoric has become more extreme under Mr Salvini. At a recent rally in Rome, he said he was “sick of seeing the immigrants in the hotels and the Italians who sleep in cars”. And before last month’s election, a candidate for the League remarked that immigration must stop because it endangered the “white race”.

There is little doubt that these comments (regardless their tone) address a big issue in Italy. Over 600,000 migrants, mainly from Africa, have landed on Italian shores in the last four years. While the numbers have slowed due to a controversial deal with Libya, the League has still been able to take advantage of both domestic and EU mismanagement of the crisis. It is an issue which dominated the March election.

WHAT NOW?

The League, now Italy’s oldest political party, has shown surprising endurance. In many ways, Mr Salvini has continued Mr Bossi’s ‘malleable ideology’ of reorientating the party’s political priorities as circumstances dictate. But for all its apparent versatility, it will also need to be careful. The League may have dropped ‘Northern’ from its name, as well as its anti-southern rhetoric, but it will take more than rebranding and public apologies to become a truly national party, one which is acceptable to a wider public.

It is also not clear what effect its changing scope will have on its traditional supporters. The lack of internal debate over relegating the party’s northern identity – once its defining feature – is striking. Interviews with League members reveal that many see this move as a short term, pragmatic, step simply to boost support. However, Mr Salvini’s own grand political ambitions suggest they may well be disappointed.


Matteo Salvini flanked by the leaders of Brothers of Italy (Giorgia Meloni) and Forza Italia (Silvio Berlusconi). The three parties make up the right-wing coalition. Image: Presidenza della Repubblica [CC]

For now, talks on forming Italy’s new government remain unpredictable. Disagreements between, and within, different political parties have so far ensured a stalemate. The current centre-right coalition – made up of Forza Italia, Brothers of Italy, and the League – has tried to put on a united front. As leader of its biggest party, Mr Salvini may yet become Italy’s Premier. But the largest party from the election, the 5-Star Movement, continues to divide all of those involved, due to its policies and rhetoric. Some want to work with it – others don’t. Political loyalty can be fickle, though, and the lure of political power strong: something will have to give before Italy gets a new government.


Many Italians feel let down by not only the ruling class at home, but also in Brussels. Confidence in the abilities of those in charge is low. This has caused a significant shake-up of Italy’s political geography.

Whatever happens, the recent election revealed a high level of public distrust with the established status quo. Many Italians feel let down by not only the ruling class at home, but also by Brussels. Whether it be the slow economic recovery or the unease about the management of immigration, confidence in the abilities of those in charge is low. This has caused a significant shake-up of Italy’s political geography. The old guard is fading. Once Mr Berlusconi leaves the stage for good, a vacuum will open up on the right of Italian politics. There will be few options to fill it apart from the League, led by Matteo Salvini. The party’s best election result is likely still to come.


Lindsay Mackenzie is a European security analyst specialising in Russia. He writes regularly in the national media on these subject areas. Lindsay works with CABLE. He is on Twitter at: @l_pmackenzie and can be reached at lindsay.p.mackenzie@gmail.com


Feature image: League sticker from the 2008 election. The party entered a coalition government with Silvio Berlusconi. Image: agenziami [CC BY-SA 2.0]