On March 5, we will very likely find that Italian voters have delivered the country over to populism. This term is vague and should be used with great care. We could say that the “populists” are those who are at odds with the principles of democratic government: checks and balances, human rights, and the respect for minorities.
In Italy, populisms are plentiful, and if we look carefully, there are at least three types: the crypto-fascist and racist populism of the Lega Nord and FDI, the digital-esoteric populism of the 5 Star Movement, and the TV-business mogul populism of Silvio Berlusconi.
Some would like to forget the last one, but for the past quarter century Berlusconi has always had his own chapter in the ever-increasing international literature on populism.
In Italy, populism has commanded a majority for some time now. In 2013, the parties that we have just identified as populist had a combined total of 55 percent of the vote. After the modest obstacle in their path that was the Monti list (which took 10 percent back then) disappeared, this time the polls are saying that the two center-left formations, the PD and Liberi e Uguali, plus Potere al Popolo, will not even get to the collective total of 30 percent, a number that the alliance led by Bersani managed in 2013.
Back then, the distorting effects of the so-called “Porcellum” electoral law had concealed the truth of the matter. Now, the reality of proportional representation, even bent as it is toward a notion of majoritarianism, does not allow us any more illusions. It is a snapshot of the mood of the country—a country where the center-left and the left are a clear minority.
We wonder if the sorcerer’s apprentices who were the architects of the Italian “Second Republic” from the beginning of the ‘90s, under the principles of governability and majority rule, are celebrating this development. In 1992, the “populist” label could be attributed only to the MSI and the Lega Nord, amounting to 12 percent of the electorate. But now, after the abuse they suffered, the rules of democracy seem to be getting their revenge—or, at least, showing how delicate they really were in the first place.
It will be hard to get a government out of this whole mess. If Berlusconi and his associates obtain a majority of the seats—or even just 40 percent of the vote—one can bet they will indeed form a government, setting aside all division for the sake of power. To satisfy Europe, they will take it easy on economic issues. About the rest, especially immigration, it’s not like anyone in Europe is in a position to take the higher ground. On human rights, Hungary, Austria and Poland demonstrate just how much Europe is willing to tolerate, provided that “governability” is maintained. If things go south, the troika have had their bags packed for some time.
If right-wing populism fails to claim a victory, it could happen that those who have their interests to protect would simply disavow it, even though no one would believe them. In the name of dealing with an urgent situation, they would come up with a red line (regardless of how much of a fiction it would be) between “good” and “bad” populism, or indeed pretend that Berlusconi is not a populist at all, and come up with a Renzi-Berlusconi government. But other scenarios are also possible. For instance, if he is not too far away from a majority of seats when the polls close, Berlusconi could “shop around” for some extra ones.
Under these conditions, a part of the center-left is entertaining the theory of the “useful vote,” or even “defending democracy,” which would supposedly justify voting for the PD. Prodi has revived this notion, as well as Enrico Letta from his comfortable Parisian exile, both coming out in support of Gentiloni, i.e. Renzianism applied with kid gloves.
It is nothing but a con: these are in fact declarations of support for a marriage between the Democratic Party and Berlusconi, which Scalfari has already called “the lesser evil.” Of course, it is equally true that each extra vote given to Liberi e Uguali is a vote for burying this possibility once and for all. With a good result by the LeU, things would get far more complicated—and that is how they should be. Especially if Potere al Popolo manages to pass the threshold to get into Parliament, an unconquered outpost of the Left would still remain, and from there we could start again.
In his recent article in The Guardian, James Newell, an excellent British political scientist who knows the situation in Italy very well, has argued that the condition of the Italian Left is no different from that of the Left in other European countries, who have abandoned the working classes and have been abandoned by them in turn.
His analysis is impeccable. But it calls for two additional notes.
Only in Italy is populism the only alternative. And regarding the abandonment of the working classes, the socialist left-wing parties have not only ceased to be the spokespeople for the working classes and to take care of their condition, but most importantly have refused to organize them into a political and sociological whole. By themselves, the working classes do not exist as such, unless some party or movement aggregates their individual experiences and gives them a shared meaning. Otherwise, there are only individuals: poor, marginalized, left behind, disoriented, living from day to day as they can, and even, indeed, voting for the populists.
The Renzian Democratic Party has proudly manifested its disdain for the working classes, mocked the unions and sided with Marchionne. They were deluded enough to think that they would be able to compensate for the losses by the media appeal of their leader.
There was no shortage of warnings. After the short-lived bump on the occasion of the European Parliament elections, the unpopularity of the PD and of Renzi—as Newell defined it—has grown incessantly, in election after election. But they stubbornly insisted on the same course.
Now, the Italians will pay for the damage done, and we will need to figure out how to put the pieces of the Left back together again.