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In Italy's new government, a glimpse of populism's scope – and limits

Why We Wrote This

“Populist” is used to describe everything from the Trump administration to Chavista Venezuela. Italy's new government, made of two contrasting parties, offers a chance to explore how much the term encompasses. 

Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio claps for the new Chamber of Deputies president Roberto Fico, also of Five Star, in Rome on March 24.
Tony Gentile/Reuters
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What exactly does “populism” mean? The new Italian government gives the term a new dimension. One party in the coalition is a standard right-wing nationalist movement with a dislike for immigrants, but the other is a catch-all movement whose campaign pledges would not have been out of place in a European socialist platform. When we say “populist” we think Donald Trump or Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. There are other populists out there, though, who base their appeal just as solidly on anti-elite rhetoric but put it to very different purpose. Left-wing populists are more common in Latin America, where they have a mixed record. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez’s successor has plunged his country into chaos; in Bolivia, President Evo Morales has been a model of fiscal rectitude, bringing economic growth and slashing inequality. On both the left and the right, though, populist leaders “dislike the constraints that liberal democracy puts on them,” says Duncan McDonnell, a professor at Griffith University in Nathan, Australia. When populists win elections, whichever end of the political spectrum they come from, watch out for the rule of law.

Maybe it’s because of Donald Trump, but when most people say “populist” they think right-wing nationalist, with a splash of authoritarianism. There are plenty of other political leaders around the world who fit that mold, from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

But the new Italian government, installed this week, shows that populism comes in other flavors too. Parties like the League and the Five Star Movement, the Italian ruling pair, may both wear the populist label, sharing a distrust of elites and a claim to embody “the people.” But that’s about where their similarities end.

Populism is in fact a broad category, ranging from the radical right to the revolutionary left, which takes nations in very different directions. While often spoken of in one breath, the disparate types of populists around the world have conflicting agendas – and similarly varying levels of success at carrying those agendas out.

And in Italy's case, the two populist parties' priority goals are so far apart that they they may end up achieving neither of them.

The League is a standard radical right-wing populist party that campaigns against Italy’s traditional political and cultural elites and against immigrants. It is popular among small businessmen and has much in common with Marine Le Pen’s National Front party in France.

But it has much less in common with its ally, the Five Star Movement founded by activist-comedian Beppe Grillo as a shout of rage against a corrupt and stagnant political class, which quickly found an echo among voters.

“At the beginning, Five Star had a very, very strong left-wing, Green [party] soul,” says Daniele Albertazzi, an Italian expert on populism at the University of Birmingham in Britain. “It was big on direct democracy and new technology empowering the people.”

Using the internet to do politics differently, Five Star has refused to be boxed into a traditional political category, even as it has adopted a harder line against immigration. “It is a cross-cutting, catch-all party that draws voters from the left, the right, and the center,” says Roberto D’Alimonte, a political analyst and pollster at LUISS, a university in Rome.

Its main policy planks would not be out of place in a European socialist program: environmental issues, and a sort of universal basic income that is extremely popular in Italy’s poor south, where Five Star won 42 percent of the vote in March’s elections.

But the idea of handing out money to poor southerners is not popular at all in the prosperous north, the League’s stronghold, where anti-immigrant sentiment extends to Italians living south of Rome. The League’s top priority is a flat tax of 10 percent.

Beyond the awkward math of raising welfare spending while slashing tax revenues, there is a matter of principle. The League was founded on the frustration that northern businessmen felt at being made to subsidize southerners. Now Five Star is asking the League to do just that.

“I have my doubts about how long this partnership will last,” says Professor D’Alimonte. “Their constituencies are so different.”

It's difficult, speaking for the people

Five Star’s hybrid appeal may be unique, but other populist movements have sprung up that promote left-wing agendas. More common in Latin America than elsewhere, Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela is a prime example.

Like right-wing populists, left wingers focus their ire on the elites that they accuse of betraying “the people.” But, says Duncan McDonnell, a professor at Griffith University in Nathan, Australia who has written extensively on populism, leftists “do not argue that the people are threatened by dangerous ‘others’ such as immigrants or Roma” in the way their right-wing counterparts do.

Instead, they are more inclusive, says Dr. Albertazzi, using standard socialist policies “to bring people at the bottom of society into the community, by investing in health, education, and jobs.”

For a while that worked in Venezuela. While Mr. Chavez was president – until his death in 2013 – absolute poverty levels fell by two-thirds, unemployment halved, and infant mortality fell from 20 to 13 per 1,000 live births. But profligate spending and falling oil prices punctured the model, and Venezuela is now mired in economic chaos, with poverty levels rising again.

In Greece, the left-wing firebrand Alexis Tsipras has scarcely been more successful in keeping his promises to the poor. He won office at the head of the populist Syriza party, campaigning against the old-style politicians who had led Greece into economic ruin, and against the austerity policies that the European Union and International Monetary Fund were urging as a remedy.

In the end, in return for bailouts, Mr. Tsipras was obliged to cave to EU reform demands. Though he resolved the debt crisis, the reforms have not led to a significant recovery in an economy that has lost a quarter of its size.

Though leftists rarely adopt right wingers’ anti-foreign stance, left- and right-wing populists do share key attributes, says Professor McDonnell. “Populism posits a good homogenous people against a set of corrupt and distant elites who are oppressing them undemocratically so that their rights and prosperity are threatened,” he says.

And populists of all stripes “dislike the constraints that liberal democracy puts on them,” McDonnell adds, often showing little patience for the checks and balances that the separation of powers is meant to guarantee.

When you've won power, try to keep it

Chavez gave the most dramatic expression to that attitude, setting up a Constituent Assembly that he controlled to sideline the existing parliament and to pack the judiciary with his allies.

In Bolivia, President Evo Morales last year persuaded the country’s top court to strike down constitutional limits on re-election, thus allowing him to stand for a fourth term next year, and as often as he likes thereafter.

Such stories are not unfamiliar to voters in Hungary and Poland, where populist governments have instituted judicial reforms that appear to undermine the independence of the judiciary. Last November the deputy head of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, warned that legislation passed by the Law and Justice party in Poland posed “a systemic threat to the rule of law” there.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Orbán has also pushed through reforms that weaken the Constitutional Court, putting his government on a collision course with the European Union. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Mr. Orbán's office.]

“Populists say ‘if I’m speaking on behalf of the people, how can an unelected judge tell me what to do?’ ” explains Albertazzi. “They don’t have much time for liberal democratic procedures.”

Leftist populist governments have had a mixed record: Venezuela has collapsed into political and economic unrest under Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, while Bolivia under President Morales has enjoyed spectacular economic growth, slashing poverty and inequality. In Greece, the Syriza government’s failure to stand up to outside pressure “has tainted the broader model,” argues Cas Mudde, who studies populist movements at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Populists on the right, meanwhile, have the wind in their sails in Europe and beyond. It remains to be seen which direction the new Italian government, torn between different priorities, will take, says Franco Pavoncello, president of John Cabot University in Rome.

In Italy, he warns, “one of the worst things for a populist is to win the elections.”

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