Conte announced his resignation on Tuesday, officially bringing an end to Western Europe’s first post-war populist government. Louis Wierenga, a Junior Research Fellow of the University of Tartu and an expert on far-right populist parties, spoke about the potential consequences, the analytical value of this crisis and about the restructuring of the political landscape.
First, can you explain the difference between the League, the Five Star Movement and the Brothers of Italy? What is the difference between the former League and Five Star Movement coalition and the League and Italy Brothers coalition?
Before answering, I would like to indicate an important distinction. Populism, of course, is a buzzword of the 21st century, but most of the time it is used instead of nativism, which means xenophobic nationalism. This does not mean that all populist parties are nationalistic. For example, SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain are extremely populist, but not at all nativist. The Five Star Movement is, of course, an anti-elite, Euro-skeptic, populist party, but I would not call them a radical right party, unlike the League.
Brothers of Italy is a hard-right party which has origins as a neo-fascist party. The League is the only major party close to them, so we can be almost certain that they will agree to back the League to help them get 40% (or close to it, since the League is expected to get around 37%). If these two parties will rule together, then Italy will form the most severe right-wing radical government in Europe, and the more rigid right-wing government since Mussolini’s time.
That is, they are all right-wing populists, Eurosceptics, and the only difference is how right they are, right?
Yes, but I really would not consider the Five Star Movement as a populist radical right party. Yes, populists, of course: they are against globalization, Eurosceptics, of course, like the League, but there is a big difference in nativism. Their views on immigration are a bit ambiguous. They have taken an anti-immigration stance, but they are not as nativist as the League or other parties that are in the PRR family. As well, migration is not one of the five stars – the five key issues for the party. Many of these issues are classic left-wing issues. The left/right distinction in party cleavages have shifted from socioeconomic to sociocultural. That being said, Luigi Di Maio’s call for a cease of sea-taxis which bring migrants to Europe’s shores and Beppe Grillo suggesting that Italy should have illegal immigrants expelled could be viewed at as nativist. Another issue is their choice of group in the EP. They are in Farage’s EFDD group, but Grillo wanted to leave to join ALDE, hardly a PRR group. But this is decided, like many other issues for the party, by registered members online. And the vote was heavily in favor of joining the EFDD.
I think that party categorization should be reconceptualized in the near future as there are certain differences within parties included in this categorization. As of right now in political science we use the 2007 categorization of Casa Mudde to unite all these parties and put them into one party family: this is populism, nativism and authoritarianism. If a party has these two features, but not three, we, in fact, cannot put it in the same bundle. But if a party has all three characteristics, then it fits. An important distinction is the difference between a populist radical right-wing party and radical right politics. Some people look, for example, at Law and Justice in Poland and wonder whether they are purely a radical right-wing party or if they simply became a radical right actor after 2015 due to changes in their own political system and in their capturing most of the radical right electorate.
And we can take a look at Victor Orban and Fidesz, who have become even more right-wing than Jobbik (the far-right nationalist political party of Hungary – editor’s note), and Jobbik is trying to get closer to the center and has completely updated his strategy. So, this becomes an important distinction, but the “Five Star Movement” are populist, definitely Eurosceptic, but not a radical right-wing party.
One of the scenarios is a coalition of all parties except the League and the Brothers of Italy. Brussels will like this option, but it will be difficult to explain it to voters, since the League is now the most popular party. Salvini has already asked his constituents to defend democracy. Will the removal of the League from power lead to even greater radicalization of the population and more support for the League in the next election?
It is possible. I think this is what Matteo Salvini is counting on. Or he may want to find a way to avoid his promises, which will be very difficult to translate into reality. It is a little strange that he decided to stop supporting the current government, since he was an influential figure there. It’s a perhaps little strange that he did it. I think he is capitalizing on the moment, because their support has grown by several points since the last election.
A coalition between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement is possible, but then they must come to an agreement on certain issues, and I’m not sure that they can. PD was initially reluctant to do so but have now agreed to negotiate a deal with M5S. From the perspective of M5S, PD now leads them in the polls. PD’s leader has given 5 conditions to M5S, some of which might be problematic. Environmentally sustainable policies and more economic redistribution are likely to be issues which PD and M5S agree on, though M5S has opposed them on environmental grounds in the past. PD wants Europe to become more involved in immigration policy, where Beppe Grillo has called for the Dublin Regulation to be revised. So, this is questionable. Allegiance to the EU and, especially accepting parliamentary democracy in full, would arguable be the biggest issue for M5S.
The League can capitalize on the so-called betrayal of people, they are likely to present this as a betrayal of voters. And this may ultimately hurt the Five Star Movement if they enter into a coalition with the party with which they have been in ideological confrontation for so long. As they are an anti-establishment party, they have been against any type of alliance (in Italy), in principle. But this is how politics works, even if they are trying to change politics – for instance, a reduction in the number of MPs and limiting terms to two.
The coalition between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement will be problematic, may undermine their electoral base, and the League may capitalize on this and entice the voters of the Five Star Movement. Slightly over 50 percent of M5S supporters supported a coalition with the League. But it would remain to be seen just how many M5S voters Salvini could woo – though he started out being very left-wing.
And, of course, there is still a budget issue. If elections are held, it will probably take several months, and this will make the EU a little nervous. Salvini promised to cut taxes, which will be quite difficult to implement.
Conte’s resignation officially led to the end of the first populist coalition in Western Europe. What conclusions should be drawn from the collapse of the coalition? Is this a good sign for pro-European or mainstream parties?
This is a good question. I’m glad you asked this. I think that people who study parties, populism, democracy, and democratic backsliding should be asking this question. The short answer is we don’t know yet. The difference between how politicians react and how voters react is also key. Since the League and M5S are the two most popular parties in Italy now, the answer to this question would largely depend on how mainstream parties did if elections were held as a result of Conte stepping down.
This topic is more complex than it seems. The real power of far-right populists is in setting the agenda. They force mainstream parties to adopt part of their rhetoric and/or agenda in order to compete with them, and this is an area where far-right populists can really leave their mark.
Most of the most traditional mainstream parties no longer have discourse or ideology. They are anxious to stay in power. If you look at Western Europe, traditional parties are losing significant portions of their electorate. They usually still take first and second place, but they have lost a real ideology. The electorate goes to extreme right-wing populists, but also to the greens and liberals of a more left-wing sense. Recent EU elections are a good example of this. The populists and the extreme right have done well, maybe not as well as many expected, and the main conclusion from this is that the political landscape in Europe is fragmented. Liberals and greens gained 8 percent, and this is not strictly a Western European trend, if you like to use geographical terms, I don’t, but they are widespread. Here I refer to the East European summer with pro-democracy elections and protests, combined with the presence of radical right politics and parties in the region.
I think that what we see is a kind of restructuring of the political landscape and a kind of debate or political competition over what kind of Europe voters want: a more nationalist protectionist Europe or a more inclusive one.
In the case of Italy, which you ask about, what we are looking at depends largely on the outcome, then we can draw conclusions. If Salvini succeeds, then we can say that in this case he coped, and if it happens that the “Five Star Movement” will flirt or go on
compromise with the Democratic Party, then we can talk about this situation as a compromise with the elites. If the League loses and is not included in the next government, it will be interesting, because one of the theories is that these parties like to be in the opposition, because they can make a fuss, but not be obligated to deliver on campaign promises. I do not necessarily think this is the case with Salvini, he very likely wants to stay in power and is regarded as one of the most powerful people in Italy, currently.
There are a few cases on which we can study this, including the “True Finns”, The Danish People’s Party, and “The League”. I think that in the coming years there will be some very interesting political studies on what happens when the far-right parties are in government and have strong coalition power.
What do you think about changing the political landscape? Is it just a life cycle, do old parties die, do new ones take their place, or is it something more important? You mentioned ideology. In the last century, ideologies predicted death, does today’s transformation mean that it is significant again?
I think that ideology is becoming more important because, as I mentioned earlier, big mainstream parties, social democrats, or Christian democrats have really lost their ideology. Most no longer have a real discourse. In some cases, certain parties, and here I do not mean the mainstream conservative competitors, I mean social democrats and traditional left parties, adopt some rhetoric or policies in order to compete with the extreme right. For example, Denmark with the Social Democrats. They didn’t run the campaign strictly on a socially democratic platform, they competed with the Danish People’s Party and it worked. So, I think that the real ideology now comes from new parties from the left spectrum and the extreme right. Most of them are not newcomers, many of them have existed for some time in the political arena. The new thing about them is that they were able to successfully capitalize on social media and gain approximately 15% of the vote in their countries. There they can become more mainstream in the eyes of voters, legitimize their party.
How is the phenomenon of national populism in western Europe different from eastern Europe? What is the reason?
The far-right policy and rhetoric in the mainstream is to a much greater extent in eastern Europe than in western, and so it has been for some time. It’s not just about mainstream conservatives. Robert Fico, a Social Democrat in Slovakia, is a good example. He talks about the migration crisis in more radical terms than, say, the “Swedish Democrats”.
The biggest difference is that until 2015, the radical right in Central East Europe focused on national minorities. The people they targeted, were in the region for centuries, if we look at central Europe, or for decades, if we are talking about the Baltic countries. Anti-Semitism is more common in central and eastern Europe and is almost not present in western Europe, because there it is a greater taboo. When there was a migration crisis Europe, they began to talk about Muslims and terrorism, which they, by and large, did not do before. For example, Jobbik in Hungary. They sympathize with Islam, but that is because they have espoused anti-Semitism. They do not want to see them in Hungary, of course, but they are promoting the strengthening of ties with Iran, for example, and strongly against Israel. While in Western Europe there are many parties which support Israel, which can be taken as a hidden message to its supporters, an Islamophobic narrative or a statement.
One of the other differences is that the far-right parties in western Europe have a longer history because all parties have a longer history as the political system of eastern Europe is simply younger.
And I would like to mention research done by my colleague, Michael Minkenberg, who wrote an outstanding book on the radical right in central and eastern Europe in 2017. His argument is that it is necessary to understand the role of the radical right in the transition from communism to democracy. The transition process and unfinished nation-building in the region has made the radical right more ideologically extreme. The radical right played a key role in influencing the mainstream.
How have far-right populist parties changed political behavior in eastern and western Europe? For example, have post-Soviet cleavages become less significant?
In Estonia, post-Soviet cleavages are becoming less significant, and I do not know if this is necessarily strictly due to the radical right. Perhaps they are changing due to issues which the radical right are taking notice of. For example, post materialist values. People who haven’t benefited a lot from the transition or globalization, they just don’t have time to worry about things like gender equality or minority rights, such things just don’t exist on their radar. This is a rather different group of people, because the way globalization and ensuing cleavages took place in Western Europe and North America was very different from the way transition took place in the region, it happened in a shorter period of. The far right do not create problems, the great recession has occurred, the migration crisis has occurred. They didn’t invent this, they simply framed a narrative. This is an electoral strategy: they know that there are people who are unhappy with x, y and z, and they will talk about x, y and z in very simplified terms. This is happening in other countries in the region as well, but also there are corruption cleavages which are prevalent in Hungary and Slovakia.
Speaking of ideology and politics. You said that it is becoming more important, but at the same time now in Italy, the Five Star Movement can enter into a coalition with the Democratic Party, which have nothing in common but hate Salvini. What does this tell us? Maybe politics becomes more technocratic after a wave of populism?
I do not think that we can draw a European wide conclusion that politics is becoming or will become more technocratic after a wave of populism or neo-nationalism which has been significantly strengthened in the past few years. It may be that both nationalist/populists and left-wing parties which are taking votes away from the mainstream will look for a new type of political leader. In this instance, the populist radical right has already done this with the likes of Salvini, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders etc.
It could be the case that technocracy becomes part of cleavages, but so far, this varies from country to country. What is clear is that for the foreseeable future populist and populist radical right parties will be around for the foreseeable future.