Italy’s Populists

The populist reaction against Europe’s crisis continues to move south, as exemplified by the astounding success of the Five Star Movement led by comedian Giuseppe Grillo, which became Italy’s largest single party in the recent general elections. An organization that has been in existence for three years, the Five Star Movement has capitalized on the country’s growing disgust with politics, austerity and Europe.

First we saw populism become politically successful in the north with the success of groups such as Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Finland’s True Finns, and others. It took a while for populism to become politically significant in the south, where voters seemed unwilling to legitimize extremist anti-systemic movements even if they were happy to see them fill the streets with protests. But last year we saw the left-wing radical Syriza party turn Greek politics upside down and emerge as the second largest force in Parliament, while the neo-Fascist Golden Dawn got 21 seats.

The general trend continued in various parts of Europe. In the Netherlands, for instance, the far right improved on its earlier successes, obtaining 24 seats against the Liberals’ 31 and the Labor Party’s 30.

How long before we see the rise of an extreme populist group in Spain, where the growing discontent with the center-right government is not translating into a rising acceptance of the discredited Socialists? We have already seen the main Catalan nationalist party embrace independence, a cause it had carefully avoided for decades and which now appeals to at least half of that region’s voters. The growing criticism coming from Spain´s established parties and the press against the monarchy, an institution that had been untouchable since the transition to democracy after Franco, is another way in which the passions awakened by the social and economic debacle are taking unexpected shapes.

These different European groups and tendencies differ from each other and some of them are less scary than others (a few are even partially inspired by decent impulses) but they all point to a state of mind willing to throw away the baby with the bath water. Those voters seem to be putting their faith either in autocrats or in statists who want to replace mediocre democracy with mob rule.

The rise of populism also points to the inability of the mainstream parties and the European bureaucracy to respond to the crisis in a way that feels legitimate.

The perception that austerity measures impose an unfair burden on the population stems naturally from a society that has for too long felt entitled to a nanny state but also from a very justified grudge against the bailout of financial institutions and other industries seen as having played a key role in the bubble that burst. The last example of a deeply unpopular bailout is the $5.1 billion rescue of Monte dei Paschi, the Italian bank, a few days before the general election.

In the case of Greece, which has been the object of massive European bailouts, much of the money has been used in effect to help banks, either because they were direct creditors of the rescued government or because Europe’s central bank and the IMF bought from them many of the Greek bonds they were holding. The widespread perception that some are more equal than others when it comes to Europe’s response to the crisis has fueled the popular discontent with anything that resembles official institutions.

Of course, other factors have been at play and populist nationalism was already a salient factor in European politics before 2008. But the key point is that fringe groups are becoming real political forces because the mainstream institutions have lost much credibility in this context. Historically, such scenarios have enabled authoritarian movements to gain respectability. Even when disgust with politics started with innocent-looking, iconoclastic groups such as that led by Giuseppe Grillo—which were soon co-opted or displaced by the better organized forces of darkness.

  • Catalyst