Triumph of right populism
Election marks the worst ever performance of the post-World War II left, writes Toby Abse
The Italian general election on March 4 demonstrated that the wave of xenophobic, rightwing populism that has dominated the politics of the western world since June 2016 is not confined to the UK and USA, or to the central/eastern European states within the EU.
The complacency of the western European bourgeois liberal establishment after the relative failure of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France and the ultimate success of Angela Merkel’s lengthy efforts to revive a ‘grand coalition’ as a barrier against the far-right populists of the AfD in Germany, has been totally shattered by the advance of the Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement - M5S) and the Legain Italy. Italy is one of the three main founding countries of the European Economic Community/European Union, and developments there clearly have a far greater weight than the outcomes of elections in Hungary, Poland or even Austria.
The parliamentary arithmetic means that the European establishment’s first choice - a German-style grand coalition of the Partito Democratico (PD), Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and their respective minor allies - would only have 225 seats in the Chamber of Deputies: well short of the 316 required for an overall majority. After they realised that a grand coalition was probably not on the cards, the European Commission, together with the European People’s Party1, belatedly began to hope that a Forza Italia-dominated centre-right coalition would keep the Europhobic Legain check, and confine the equally Europhobic M5S to the opposition. But this too has been invalidated by events. The Legahas 121 seats to Forza Italia’s 107 and the ‘centre-right’ bloc as a whole has 262 seats - 54 short of an overall majority in the Chamber of Deputies.2
Inevitably, Front National leader Marine Le Pen rejoiced at the success of the Lega, whilst Ukip’s Nigel Farage was overjoyed at M5S’s triumphant first place.3 And, of course, Steve Bannon - the alt-right guru and erstwhile chief ideologue of the Trump administration - has been ecstatic. Vladimir Putin seems to have refrained from public comments, doubtless only too aware of the claims in both American and Italian media that he was trying to influence the Italian election, but, given his links with both theLega and M5S and his long-standing personal friendship with Silvio Berlusconi, he must have been delighted by the outcome. It is to be hoped that those Europhobic groups on the British far left for whom every setback for Brussels is somehow a famous victory for the global working class do not join this ugly chorus. It should not need to be stated that this election result is a disaster both for the Italian left and the left internationally.
No less than 21.7% of the electorate voted for parties that any reasonable commentator would characterise as far-right - 17.4% for Matteo Salvini’s Lega and 4.3% for Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (FdI). TheLega had only gained 4.1% of the vote in February 2013, so it has more than quadrupled its support during Salvini’s period as leader. Whilst the 2013 figure was atypical - a consequence of demoralisation after former leader Umberto Bossi’s disgrace in a notorious corruption scandal - the Lega’s previous highest vote had been 10.2% in 1996. Although the only multi-member constituencies where theLega got more than 30% were, predictably, in Lombardy and the Veneto - Salvini’s dropping of the‘Nord’ from Lega Nord and replacement of regionalism by ultra-nationalism (‘Prima gli Italiani’ - ‘Italians first’ - was Salvini’s slogan, as opposed to Bossi’s old ‘Prima il Nord’) meant that the party became a serious force outside its old heartland, the mythical Padania. The party that had once denounced “Roma Ladrona” (‘the big thief, Rome’) now scored 11.8% in Lazio 1 (the constituency including Rome), and 16.5% in Lazio 2 (the less urban part of the region). In what had once been the red regions of Emilia Romagna, Marche, Tuscany and Umbria, it scored 19.2%, 17.3%, 17.4% and 20.2% respectively.
Around 32% gave their support to M5S, giving a total of 54.4% to rightwing populist and far-right parties represented in parliament (Lega, FdI, M5S).4 Although M5S made some gains in most northern and central regions, its considerable advance on its 2013 vote share was predominantly a southern phenomenon. Contrary to forecasts, it beat the centre-right into second place in Sicily, Sardinia and most of the mainland south.5 Without in any way abandoning my previous description of M5S as a thoroughly racist, rightwing populist party, it has to be acknowledged that it managed to channel the anger of the southern unemployed and poor - in marked contrast to the Lega, which often appealed to the self-interest of tax-dodging petty bourgeois or the better-off sections of the working class (a contrast summed up in the different appeals of the Lega’s ‘flat tax’ and M5S’s ‘citizens’ income’). M5S collected between 40% and 50% of the vote in Campania, Sicily, Puglia, Basilicata, Molise, Calabria and Sardinia. These are the regions with some of the lowest per capita incomes in the EU - between 60% and 80% of the European average. Per capita income in the south is €18,000, compared with a national average of €27,000 and a maximum of €34,100 in the north-east.
There is a similar correlation between the M5S vote and unemployment, as measured at the end of 2017. M5S obtained over 40% of the vote in regions like Calabria and Sicily, where unemployment was over 20%. The overall unemployment rate in the south is almost 18%, compared with the 11 % national average, whilst southern youth unemployment has reached 46.6%. Although the centre-north has experienced a substantial recovery in terms of employment since the 2007-08 crisis (albeit with much greater casualisation and insecurity), the south has had a net loss of 381,000 jobs. Moreover, in the last 15 years the south has lost 200,000 graduates, who have either migrated north or gone abroad - accentuating the underdevelopment of their home regions6.
Whilst M5S’s ‘citizens’ income’ is not a genuine ‘universal basic income’ - since anybody refusing three job offers would lose it immediately - this would seem a mere shibboleth in regions with mass unemployment, and those without any other hope would ignore any warnings from other parties that it might not be affordable without a massive increase in the budget deficit that would automatically bring Italy into direct conflict with the EU, and terrify the markets.
A combination of M5S and theLega, even without the FdI, could potentially form a government with a parliamentary majority that commands 347 seats - 31 more than the minimum required. At the moment of writing, this seems unlikely - because of personal rivalry between the Lega’s Matteo Salvini and M5S’s Luigi di Maio, both of whom want to be prime minister - but the prospect is spine-chilling.7
A further 14% voted for Forza Italia8, and 1.2% for its centrist ally, Noi Con Italia. Whilst mainstream commentators now seem to regard Forza Italia as a ‘traditional conservative’ party, it certainly has many of the features of rightwing populism itself (eg, a leader cult, total lack of internal democracy, heavy dependence on mass media - the Mediaset television channels, owned by its own leader) and will in all probability disintegrate when the 81-year-old Silvio Berlusconi dies or retires from political life.9 Moreover, his recent call for rapid mass deportations of 600,000 migrants would certainly place him some way to the right of a Christian Democrat like Merkel. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the French Front National felt able to issue a communiqué on March 1, saying, “The verdict is perfectly clear - around 70% of Italian citizens have expressed with their vote their rejection of the policies imposed by the EU.”10
In short, the scale of the defeat of the Italian centre and left far exceeds that of the ‘remainers’ in the UK’s Brexit referendum or of Hillary Clinton in the American presidential election of November 2016 (in which Trump’s vote was actually lower than Clinton’s). The Partito Democratico’s vote share for the Chamber of Deputies slumped to 18.7% from the 25.4% it scored under the more social democratic Pierluigi Bersani in the 2013 general election. And, of course, it was less than half the PD’s 40.8% in the 2014 European election, when Matteo Renzi’s popularity was at its zenith. The combined centre-left coalition totalled 22.9%, and if one adds the disappointing 3.4% of the left social democratic Liberi e Uguali (LeU), this brings the total vote share of the parliamentary ‘left’ up to 26.3%.
Potere al Popolo (the far-left cartel including Rifondazione Comunista) scored a pitiful 1.1% and failed to gain any parliamentary representation, just as I predicted. Whatever the merits of its programme or the sincerity and level of commitment of its militants, it could very easily have deprived LeU - and thus any forces to the left of the PD - of any parliamentary representation at all.
Why did the left do so badly? The PD’s collapse to some extent mirrored the decline of other parties in western Europe that were once classically social democratic and turned to what some call ‘social liberalism’ in the period since 1989. A similar decline has occurred in France, Germany, Spain, Greece and so on. Clearly the world economic crisis of 2007-08 and the decade of austerity that followed have intensified this pattern.
However, there is no doubt that Renzi must bear a good deal of the blame. The 2013 election followed over a year of viciously anti-working class measures implemented by the technocratic government of Mario Monti, for which the PD leadership bore some responsibility by giving Monti its backing in parliament, and undermining the efforts of the CGIL union confederation to use the strike weapon against the counter-reforms, of which Elsa Fornero’s attack on pensions was the most notorious. Nonetheless - partly because of Monti’s own ill-fated venture into party politics with Scelta Civica - Bersani could pose as offering a left alternative to Monti and draw on the legacy of the Partito Comunista Italiano to mobilise votes for the PD, at least in the strongholds of the traditional left in the ‘red regions’ and the industrial cities. Even Bersani’s naive and doomed attempt, immediately after the 2013 election, to appeal to M5S for an alliance in a hung parliament arguably had more merit than the strategy of subsequent PD leaders (Enrico Letta and Renzi) of an alliance first with Berlusconi and then, after the felon’s disgrace, with Angelino Alfano of the Christian Democrats and Denis Verdini of Forza Italia.
However, it was not just the clandestine deals with Berlusconi, or his shady former followers, but also - and probably more importantly - the aggressively zombie-Blairite policies (Jobs Act, Buona Scuola, etc) followed by Renzi that alienated the PD’s traditional electorate. Renzi’s growing arrogance - in no way curbed by his heavy defeat in the constitutional referendum of December 2016 - increased this alienation, as did the involvement of his inner circle in financial scandals. Whilst some form of left split from the PD might have occurred in reaction to those policies, Renzi’s extremely personalised attacks on the whole old guard of ex-‘official communists’ who had come to the PD from the PCI’s successor organisations meant that it assumed more serious dimensions. Finally, Renzi’s behaviour during the election campaign meant the PD vote share dropped like a stone week by week. The unnecessary exclusion from the candidate list of not just most of the vestigial organised left minorities, but even of anybody who took a different view on any issue, and the prominence to the ever more unpopular Maria Elena Boschi, who topped the legal maximum of PR election lists, was incredibly stupid. The generalised purge alienated many long-standing party activists, and Boschi’s prominence alienated many potential voters.
Then came the events that tipped the scales in the campaign - the killing of Pamela Mastropietro and the murderous, racist shooting spree carried out by the Nazi sympathiser and former Lega council candidate, Luca Traini. The only way the PD could have tried to save the situation would have been to organise immediate mass demonstrations against racism and fascism and to go on the offensive against Salvini and the Legacandidate for the Lombard regional presidency, Attilo Fontana, for inciting and justifying murderous racial violence.11 Instead of this, Renzi actually denied that Salvini was the “moral instigator” of Traini’s actions, and attempted to ban the February 10 anti-fascist demonstration in Macerata. Although LeU pressure prevented an outright ban, albeit at the last moment, the PD boycotted the demonstration and forced the marchers to change their route - in marked contrast to the display of force allowed to Forza Nuova in the city centre a few days earlier.
It was no accident that the Lega vote in Macerata rose from 0.69% in 2013 to 17.4% on March 4.12 During the subsequent fortnight, racist PD interior minister Mario Minniti allowed the fascists of Forza Nuova and Casa Pound a free rein for their so-called election campaigns,13 and encouraged the far from impartial police and carabinieri to crack down on the anti-fascists of the Centri Sociali. The PD presence on the February 24 Roman anti-fascist demonstration came far too late to turn the tide - it was no more than a hypocritical gesture to placate the likes of the CGIL.
Clearly, however, although the PD vote collapsed, LeU did not exactly fill the vacuum. Even if its own publicly expressed hope of reaching double figures percentage-wise was never very credible, it had been widely assumed both by supporters and opponents that a figure of around 6%-7% was more than likely. Instead, LeU barely scraped over the 3% parliamentary threshold with 3.4% - roughly the same figure that Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertà (SEL) scored in 2013. This suggests the ex-PD component (MDP) brought little added value to Sinistra Italiana (the remnant of the old SEL).
LeU’s leader, Pietro Grasso, was probably too respectable and institutional a figure to appeal to the disaffected poor, even, or perhaps especially, in his native Sicily - the former magistrate and former speaker of the Senate is not a fiery orator, even if the speech with which he closed LeU’s campaign in Palermo on March 2 was a clear and concise statement of LeU’s opposition to both a Berlusconi-Renzi coalition government and to the Lega and M5S. Despite Grasso’s visit to London during the election campaign, where he met and was photographed with Jeremy Corbyn in an attempt to reinforce the links implicit in LeU’s adoption of an Italian version of ‘For the many, not the few’ as its electoral slogan, and its programmatic emphasis on abolishing university fees14, Grasso was not, is not and never will be a Corbyn figure.
Perhaps the most disappointing moment of LeU’s election campaign was Grasso’s totally unnecessary and rather nauseating message of solidarity to the neo-fascist leader, Giorgia Meloni, after her alleged ill-treatment by a rowdy crowd of Livornese anti-fascists. However, whatever weaknesses Grasso may have displayed, the elderly political figure who probably did most damage to LeU’s image was, of course, the 68-year-old Massimo d’Alema. It is not just that this former prime minister has no real capacity to relate to younger generations (who would be baffled by his tedious identification with his own political hero, Palmiro Togliatti), but that most politically conscious rank-and-file lefties of his own generation - regardless of whether they were even attracted by Rifondazione or doggedly stuck with the ex-‘official communists’ up to 2013 - absolutely loathe him. His serial betrayals of first Achille Occhetto, his fellow-liquidator of the old PCI, and then of a succession of other leading centre-left politicians - most notably Romano Prodi, whose first government he brought down in 1998, and whose presidential bid he sabotaged in 2013 - mean he is universally distrusted.15
His disgraceful remarks during the election campaign about a hypothetical “government of the president” (ie, a cross-party lash-up of the PD, Forza Italia and LeU), which was angrily repudiated by Laura Boldrini and other more consistent lefts in LeU, reinforce this well-deserved distrust. Obviously, his appallingly ostentatious lifestyle, spending months of every summer sailing around on large and expensive yachts, adds to this negative image - nobody could be more of a caricature of a member of ‘La Casta’ (the life-long professional politician who has mysteriously amassed a considerable fortune) that M5S propaganda has so effectively targeted. Whether or not LeU manages to hold together after its very poor result,16 d’Alema’s failure to secure a seat in parliament is a blessed relief.17
Whilst it is far too early to predict what government will emerge from this hung parliament, developments since the election suggest that Berlusconi will not recover his authority. Renzi, of course, reluctantly resigned as PD leader on March 5 - after initially denying he would do so. To add insult to injury, he not only failed to accept personal responsibility for his party’s ignominious defeat, but proceeded to attack both PD prime minister Paolo Gentiloni - for too technocratic a campaign - and president Sergio Mattarella - for not allowing him to hold an early general election in spring 2017, in the immediate aftermath of his crushing defeat in the constitutional referendum of December 2016. This vicious rant seems to have been the last straw for the usually even-tempered Gentiloni, and alienated Renzi’s former ally, culture minister Dario Franceschini (whom Renzi accused of plotting against him with M5S)18, who joined those pressing Renzi to resign immediately. Renzi dressed up his personal refusal to stand down as principled political opposition to any deal with M5S, and a more general call on his part for the PD to go into intransigent opposition, giving its opponents a chance to attempt to form a government without it. So far the PD has rejected overtures from Luigi Di Maio, asking for external support for an M5S minority government. It remains to be seen whether the PD’s newly elected parliamentarians - hand-picked by Renzi - will stick to opposition or be tempted into some sort of formal or informal coalition.
As for Berlusconi, the 81-year-old felon has seen his dream of a miraculous political comeback turn to ashes - in any early second election, the Lega would make further advances at the expense of a declining and demoralised Forza Italia. Given the huge role his Sicilian friends played in the start of both his business and political careers, there is a certain irony in the way M5S’s triumph on the island seems to have triggered Berlusconi’s political downfall.
1. This broadly centre-right grouping, dominated by the German CDU/CSU, does include Forza Italia amongst its affiliates. Whilst this might seem slightly bizarre, it is nothing like as odd as the inclusion of the Hungarian far-right, anti-Semitic and xenophobic Fidesz.
2. These figures are taken from Corriere della Sera March 7; whilst the vast majority of votes had been counted at this stage, the incredible complexity of the Rosatellum - particularly in relation to the allocation of seats in multi-member PR constituencies - meant that these figures were not absolutely definitive. It should be pointed out that they differed from the figures initially offered by Corriere della Sera and Repubblica on March 6.
3. The Legais allied to the FN at the European level, whilst M5S is in the same European grouping as Ukip.
4. The more hard-line fascist groups only got on the ballot paper in 14 of the 20 regions, clocking up roughly 1% between them.
5. The failure of Forza Italia to win more than a handful of first-past-the-post seats in these regions explains both why Berlusconi’s coalition was so far away from winning an overall majority and why theLega was able to overtake his party.
6. All these figures are taken from La Repubblica March 7.
7. Needless to say, such an alliance has been enthusiastically advocated by Steve Bannon.
8. The latter is a mish-mash of erstwhile Forza Italia supporters, who temporarily deserted Berlusconi after his expulsion from the Senate, with the remnants of the more rightwing segments of pre-1993 Christian Democracy. It is clearly neither populist nor fascist, but its weakness is a demonstration of how feeble what one might have once called traditional conservatism is in Italy.
9. Berlusconi has always rapidly turned against anybody whom he had briefly promoted as a Dauphin figure, fearing usurpation. Salvini has in effect created a northern faction with Forza Italia, which might well merge with the Legain the event of Berlusconi’s political or physical demise.
10. Quoted in Corriere della Sera March 6.
11. Needless to say, Attilo Fontana, the defender of the “white race”, won a clear victory over the PD’s Giorgio Gori in the Lombard regional election.
12. A further 4.9% voted for the neo-fascist FdI.
13. Although Casa Pound ran its own candidates, it talked about an alliance with Salvini during the closing days of the campaign. Salvini obfuscated rather than publicly repudiating this offer of support.
14. I suspect this visit was not really an initiative by Grasso himself, but a move suggested by the team organising LeU’s election campaign in the UK and Ireland, who were predominantly younger and more radical than the majority of the LeU leadership in Italy.
15. The fact that he prefers to stab his rivals in the back, rather than openly attack them, adds to the bitterness he arouses.
16. There is now considerable tension between Nicola Fratoianni’s Sinistra Italiana and ex-PD figures like Pierluigi Bersani and Vasco Errani. Fratoianni believes LeU resembles the PD before Renzi’s takeover, and needs to move left to survive.
17. D’Alema came fourth in a Puglian single-member FPTP constituency with 3.9%. Whilst even d’Alema did not rate his chances of victory in a FPTP contest, he had serious delusions about the size of his personal following in the locality. He only got 3.1% in the multi-member PR senatorial constituency, Puglia 2, narrowly missing out on the 12th and last place.
18. As far as one can tell, this assertion was pure paranoia: only Michaele Emiliano favoured a deal with M5S, whilst even the leader of the larger PD left opposition faction, justice minister Andrea Orlando, rejected the idea.