COVID-19 is putting Italy’s populists to bed

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

epa06731456 Leader of Lega party, Matteo Salvini, talks with journalists at the end of the meeting with Five-Star Movement (M5S) leader Luigi Di Maio in Milan, Italy, 12 May 2018. Di Maio and Salvini are continuing talks on the formation of a new government. EPA-EFE/FLAVIO LO SCALZO

In political terms, the biggest casualty of COVID-19 in Italy are the country’s populists. Being anti-vax and anti-EU no longer works when the country needs both to exit the crisis. They will change their rhetoric – but lose their punch in the process, writes Elettra Ardissino.

Elettra Ardissino is a research analyst at Greenmantle, a macroeconomic and geopolitical consultancy.

It may have taken Covid-19 to deny Donald Trump a second term as U.S. President. The virus has had a similar adverse effect on Italy’s populists, too.

Only just over a year ago, far-right populist party Lega’s leader Matteo Salvini made headlines for organizing and staging a 50,000-strong anti-government rally. The crowds testified to the fact that his support was broad-based, including swathes of the Italian middle-class beyond Lega’s traditional Northern strongholds.

Fast forward to 2020. Salvini’s erstwhile supporters are defecting en masse. He has lost his status as figurehead of Italians’ anger; in late October, he was chased away from a protest organized by hospitality workers against the new COVID-19 restrictions. And anti-establishment radical Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) is doing no better. It is still in government, but weakened by infighting and lacks any semblance of an agenda.

Poll results underscore that both Lega and M5S are in the doldrums. And in the most recent political litmus test – the September regional elections – the two populist parties also came up short. Of the six governorship races, Lega won just one – and M5S, none. A far cry from 2018, in which the two parties combined obtained more than 50% of votes nationwide.

When it comes to their political affections, Italians are fickle: quick to be won over, but just as quick to repudiate. In this context, Lega and M5S’s fall from grace is only the most recent episode in a long, sorry series. As in the U.S., however, COVID-19 was the end of the affair for three reasons.

First, both Lega and M5S’s Eurosceptic discourse doesn’t work anymore. Through the EU’s fiscal recovery package, Brussels will hand Italy an extra €209BN over the next few years – more or less for free.

Meanwhile, the European Central Bank is buying Italian debt in ever-growing quantities, allowing it to borrow at ever-lower rates. Thus, a renegotiation of Italy’s membership to the EU, which Salvini had consistently advocated throughout his brief time in government between 2018 and 2019, now seems outlandish.

And in light of the second wave, M5S’s opposition to tapping a special European Stability Mechanism credit line seems irresponsible. After COVID-19, Italians want more Europe, not less: in a recent Eurobarometer survey, nearly 80% agreed that the EU should have more competences to deal with crises such as the pandemic.

Second, neither the Lega nor M5S’s stance towards the virus resonates with Italians. Psychologically traumatized by the first wave, which struck the country before anywhere else in the West, nearly 90% of Italians consistently report wearing masks in public places – the highest proportion in Europe.

Against this backdrop, Salvini’s habitual mask removal – for which he recently received a €280 fine – seems unlikely to strike a chord with the average Italian, whom he proudly claims Lega represents.

He has made various overtures to COVID-19 deniers, but most Italians have little patience for conspiracy theories about the pandemic. As for M5S, its anti-vax stance long predates COVID-19. Though the party appears now to have softened its tone in light of the virus, it is hard to see how it can restore its credibility on this issue.

As revealed by an Ipsos survey in October, Italians are amongst the most vaccine-ready Europeans: 53% said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine within three months of it becoming available, compared to 47% In Germany and the UK, and 38% in Spain and France.

Finally, Salvini has suffered from the fact that immigration – his long-time hobby-horse – is now far down the list of voters’ key concerns. With Italy set to suffer a second devastating economic blow from the reimposition of COVID-19 containment measures earlier in November, it is likely to be all but forgotten about in the months and years to come.

So what is next for Italy’s protest parties? If history is anything to go by, they won’t leave the political landscape of their own accord. In the time-honoured Italian political tradition of trasformismo (shape-shifting), their leaders will change the parties’ rhetoric, ideas and even structure.

But it will be difficult for them to go from radicalism to centrism without losing the distinctiveness that attracted voters to them in the first place.

In M5S, trasformismo is already well underway. Cognizant of M5S’s decline, de facto leader Luigi Di Maio is now trying to turn it into a mainstream governing force by side-lining radical bigwigs such as Alessandro di Battista.

A farcical turn of events for a party that, well into the 2010s, presented itself as an “anti-politics movement” advocating direct democracy and a wholesale thrashing of the Italian political elite. M5S is, however, a younger party than Lega, with shallower roots in the electorate. After the next election, it will most likely implode.

And what about Salvini? Last week, Berlusconi and Giorgia Meloni, the other protagonists of Italy’s right-wing, rebuffed his offer to join up their parties in a right-wing federation. And Berlusconi made a provocative overture to the coalition government by offering to vote in favour of a budget extension.

By doing so, he forced Salvini to vote in favour, too, to dispel any semblance of a rift in the right-wing bloc. But such a rift is nonetheless obvious.

Salvini is being strong-armed. And with other parties appropriating its right-wing credentials while discarding his now-toxic Euroscepticism, it is hard to see how he could reinvent Lega to recapture voters’ imagination.

In Italy, the pandemic has shown populists to be tutto fumo e niente arrosto – effectors of many radical proposals, but little if anything by way of concrete and effective leadership.

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