Italian Populism 2.0 -Op Ed II

In a world overrun with constant political scandals, internet debates and conspiracies, the results of the Italian election this month has largely blended in with all the other headlines here in North America. However, this headline in particular should not be ignored. The result of the election was that approximately 55% of the voters chose right-wing populist parties who based their platforms on xenophobia, Euroscepticism, and anti-establishment policies. This may come as a shock to some, especially as it contradicts the image of an idealistic multicultural Europe, but this outcome did not come out of nowhere. For one, the results are definitely related to the underlying causes of both the Brexit vote and the 2016 American election. However, the current rise of populism in Italy can also be directly linked to the rise of Mussolini in the 1930s.

This is not the first immersion of 21st-century populism in Italy either. For many years, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was the face of Italian populism. His big promises for Italy made him popular despite many scandals and corruption accusations. However, he was ultimately ousted from power in 2011 and barred from holding office following a tax fraud conviction. It would be easy to say his influence has largely diminished, especially considering his Forza Italia party polled poorly in the recent election. In reality, his influence in promoting populism has become bigger than him, with his more extreme right allies and opponents winning more power.  The two parties most notable for performing well this election were The League, an extreme right party known for their xenophobic views, and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

So, why did these parties do so well this election? For one, economic problems are a huge factor. Time and time again, economic hardship leads to disgruntled population, which in turn leads to the rise of populism. In the 1930’s, this was mainly due to the aftermath of WW1, which led to high debts, unemployment, and inflation. It’s no coincidence that Italy is also currently plagued by high unemployment, debt, and other economic troubles. The Five Star Movement received a large percentage of votes from youth in the South, an area in which youth unemployment is incredibly high. There is a sense of the necessity for change, which coincides with anti-establishment ideals. The League, on the other hand, is more Trump-like as they put the blame on the left, immigrants and the European elite.

This leads to another commonality; hyper-nationalism and the need to blame an “other”. In the 1930’s and 40’s, fascist leaders like Mussolini and Hitler infamously promoted antisemitism in their parties. Europe had had a long history of tensions between Christian and Jewish populations, and as such, Jewish people made for an easy scapegoat at the time. Nowadays, the primary scapegoat in Europe is Muslims. Recent terrorist attacks in Europe, as well as the refugee crisis, has lead to rampant Islamophobia across the continent. Italy is no exception. The sheer amount of refugees from the Middle East has only exasperated Italy’s problems even further, which makes them a convenient target for the right. Indeed, the League, in particular, has been promoting “Italian First” anti-immigration policies, many of which call for mass deportation. Both parties also look to blaming the EU in order to promote nationalistic ideals. There are a number of reasons why Europe itself makes for a good scapegoat. For one, the adoption of the Euro in Italy means it cannot rely on inflation and devaluing its currency as a tactic for an economic boost. There is also the sentiment of unfairness, as countries such as Germany are doing better economically and are seen as having more political power.

In the end, all of these factors create a perfect storm for the rise of the populist right. It may seem hasty to compare the current parties to Mussolini’s government. However, the circumstances are certainly similar. The parties platforms are certainly similar. Perhaps most importantly, the hatred permeating into politics is certainly the same.

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