The Growing Far-Right in Italian Politics

Italy hasn’t remained the most politically stable country in Europe. Following the fall of Fascist Italy in 1946,  the country has remained a democratic republic. Since then, Italy has elected 70 different governments in a 75 year period.  Much of this constant cycle of political control can be attributed to a parliamentary system that withholds substantial power from the prime minister, a system which was bred from the collective memory of Fascism, in an effort to hinder any possibility of a figure like Mussolini to gain power. Thus Italy’s political system is made up of a diverse and extensive range of political parties who regularly vie for control, causing the constant shift in political power. In the last election, 16 different parties received more than 100,000 votes, and no party received a majority of votes. With a system that emphasizes a diversity of political influence, and a share of authority, as parties are forced to build coalitions to attain majority support, one should not worry about the takeover of any political groups reminiscent of Mussolini’s Fascist Party. However, the rise of the right-wing nationalist party, Lega, has many Italians worried about Italy’s potential regression to ultra-nationalistic control. 

Lega, whose official name is Lega Nord, has an interesting history. Formed in 1991, the party was a merger of numerous northern Political parties. These parties aligned themselves with their shared resentment for the South and specifically Rome, the Italian capital. Not only is Italy a country of cultural and lingual diversity, but regions exhibit substantial differences in economic development. Southern Italian regions in recent history have been enormously underdeveloped when compared to their northern counterparts, having a combined poverty rate of 20.6 percent, compared to 4.4 percent in the North.  Lega Nord resented the policies of Rome which, heavily taxed the more wealthy northern regions, in order to provide support for the South. This idea can be seen through the many propaganda posters which highlighted this notion.

Wake up Padano!
With the Lega Nord against thieving Rome

Lega Nord saw this act of redistribution as theft committed by Rome and the South, acting against the hard-working and sufficient North. It was from this sentiment that the Party’s first large platform was born: Northern succession into the independent country of “Padania.” While certain ideas within the founding party are still seen within the party today, such as scapegoating immigrants and reducing taxes, the main focus under Umberto Bossi, the party’s leader at the time, was anti-Italian rhetoric and Padanian succession. In 1996 Bossi and his party symbolically announced Padanias independence by taking a bottle of water from the Po springs and emptying it into the sea of Venice.

Bossi announces Padania’s independence while the crowd chants “Italia non c’è più!,” (Italy is no more)

Enter the present and Lega Nord, which still officially recognizes its name as Lega Nord, but goes by the name Lega, has ironically become the most Nationalistic and prideful Italian party in the country. Under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, the party’s current leader, Lega has undergone a complete transformation, adopting the slogan “Italy First,” an idea far from the party’s original dreams of succession from the Mediterranean country. 

Matteo Salvini wearing an Italian flag mask.

Rather than placing the blame inward towards Rome. Salvini has garnered major support for his party by shifting the blame for Italy’s problems outward. Salvini even started a movement in the South called “Us with Salvini,” in order to grow Lega’s southern support, angering many of Legas older party officials, including former leader Umberto Bossi. In contrast to Bossi, Salvini has focused his rhetoric towards Euroscepticism, blaming much of Italy’s economic struggles on the euro, even going as far as calling the currency a  “crime against humanity.” His anti-EU rhetoric extends toward their handling of migrants as well, criticizing The EU’s policies regarding migrants in support of a highly prohibitory stance, blaming migrants for crime and a loss of western Christian culture in the country. Salvini states, “Our culture, society, traditions, and way of life are at risk.” He also replaced the blame of southerners hoarding tax revenues brought by northern regions, with the belief that migrants are getting preferential treatment when it comes to general welfare provided by the government.

Guess who is last for the rights of:
housing, work, healthcare

Despite opposition claiming his opinions of migrants are xenophobic and outright racist, his rhetoric has been accepted by many in Italy and have been backed by many right-wing populist politicians and people across Europe, as Salvini has built relationships with Marine Le Penn, leader of the National Front party in France, and Geert Wilders, Leader of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. Lega did surprisingly well in Italy’s last general elections in 2018, gathering the third most votes as a party and leading the most popular center-right coalition. This was a great achievement for the far-right as Lega became the dominant right-wing party, beating Forza Italia, the party of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Lega was able to further its influence when it formed a coalition with the Five Star Movement, another populist party holding more progressive left-wing ideologies, which secured Lega’s place in the new government. Since the formation of the new government in 2018, Lega has seen substantial growth. The party has consistently polled as the most popular party in the country, gathering support from about 30 percent of the population. This is substantial progress from the 2018 results where they finished with 17 percent of the popular vote.

It is also important to notice the rise of the Brothers of Italy party in more recent polling. Represented by the dark blue line the Brothers of Italy party has gathered considerably more support in recent years and like Lega, this party boasts a platform of right-wing populism with a focus on nationalism, conservatism, and Euroscepticism.

With all of this being said, the incredible threat of the Coronavirus has somewhat set the plans of a far-right governed Italy on the back burner. While Lega has consistently polled as the most popular party in Italy, the effects of the pandemic have slightly tarnished Salvini and Lega’s reputation. The North was initially hardest hit by the virus, with the region of Lombardy attributing to half of the national deaths during the first surge which started in a town outside of Milan. Lombardy is Salvini’s home region, and inconsistency regarding his response to the virus, made some people lose faith in his party. In addition, many people began to lean towards more predictable and establishment representatives to harbor reassurance during the time of crisis.  On top of this Salvini has joined the newly formed Unity government of Mario Draghi, a technocratic former head of the European national bank, who is staunchly pro-EU. It seems that by joining the unity government, Salvini is attempting to portray a more moderate right-wing face to seem responsible in the eyes of stakeholders, and attempt to fully take the place of the Forza Italia party, the center-right party, that is set to fall apart after the retirement of long time leader Silvio Berlusconi. It appears that for now Lega and Salvini have focused their efforts towards the center in order to gather added general support and remain relevant during a time of crisis. This could all change, however, when the 2023 elections come around as Lega and The Brothers of Italy, might attempt to reestablish their dominant far-right position in Italian politics. 

All in all, Italian Nationalism has come a long way since the fall of Fascism in 1946.  Started from Lega Nord’s anti-Italy successionist movement, and birthed through the leadership of Matteo Salvini.  The far-right political party, Lega has been able to cement itself as the most popular party in Italy. Existing on a platform of federalism, nationalism, Euroscepticism, and anti-migration, the party has gathered the support of millions of Italians who believe their country has fallen into disrepair. The Brothers of Italy party has expanded on this sentiment, establishing wide support for nationalistic policies and leaders across Italy. While the Coronavirus pandemic has halted some growth for the far-right movement, only time will tell if these parties will be able to make big changes in Italy, as many people look towards the 2023 general elections. 

Works Cited

Edwards, Catherine. “Political Cheat Sheet: Understanding Italy’s Northern League.” Thelocal.it, The Local, 18 Jan. 2018, http://www.thelocal.it/20180118/political-cheat-sheet-understanding-italys-northern-league/.

Jamieson, Alastair. “Italy Election Could End with Silvio Berlusconi Playing Kingmaker.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 3 Mar. 2018, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/italy-s-berlusconi-could-play-kingmaker-after-wild-election-campaign-n851926.

Materia, Enrico et al. “Income inequality and mortality in Italy.” European journal of public health vol. 15,4 (2005): 411-7. doi:10.1093/eurpub/cki007

“Opinion Polling for the 2018 Italian General Election.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_for_the_2018_Italian_general_election.

“Opinion Polling for the next Italian General Election.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_for_the_next_Italian_general_election.

Rossi, Sara, and Emilio Parodi. “Italy’s Far-Right League Hurt by Response to Coronavirus in Heartland.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 26 Apr. 2020, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-italy-lombardy/italys-far-right-league-hurt-by-response-to-coronavirus-in-heartland-idUSKCN2280GX.

Santi, Federico. “Has Italy’s Far Right Really Changed Its Tune?” GZERO Media, Eurasia Group, 25 Mar. 2021, http://www.gzeromedia.com/viewpoint/has-italys-far-right-really-changed-its-tune.

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