Italy: An Oracle on Populism for CEE

Italy: An Oracle on Populism for CEE

by Donatella Bonansinga

The current populist turn in Central and Eastern Europe might seem surprising or puzzling to some. The Visegrad Group (V4), born to further the European integration of Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, is now acting as an opposition force within the EU institutions. In contrast, Russia, the decades-long oppressor, is viewed increasingly favourably by parts of the political class in these countries.

By often sympathising with Russia and/or resorting to a renewed nationalist language, the V4 are challenging the basic assumptions upon which their post-Soviet Union transition and integration to the West were built.  Upon a closer look, this is not as surprising as it may seem, as it inscribes into a tendency that is currently widespread in Europe, namely the attack on liberalism.

Interestingly, of all countries it is Italy that turns out to be a useful reference to shed light on some pivotal aspects of the populist phenomenon in V4 and elsewhere in order to understand the complex recent developments.

Populism and Democracy

Contrary to what many – alarmist – commentators claim, we are not about to witness an authoritarian turn in Western or Eastern Europe. As the Italian case shows, there is a fundamental difference between populism in the pre-war period and its current versions.

Current populism does not undermine procedural democracy, in that it does not aim at suppressing democratic institutions. This new populist wave actually targets merely the liberal understanding of democracy, namely this idea that the general will of the people cannot be automatically translated into political actions and that power, also that of the people, must subjected to institutional constraints. To put it simply, that democracy means so much more than just an uninhibited rule of majority.

New Media and the Personalization of Power

The Italian experience can also point to another interesting and potentially really dangerous aspect of populism. With Berlusconi and, more recently, Beppe Grillo, Italy has been one of the first countries to experience how far populism can go when combined with the new means that modern technology offers.

By using television and internet media as their mobilizing tools, these self-proclaimed political “outsiders” have contributed to a detrimental political culture, based on the identification of the voter – and consequently – of power with a political figure. It is in this tendency to personalize power that populism becomes the antithesis to democracy itself and politics becomes a competition over attractive personalities rather than ideas, values and programmes.

Manufacturing Foes

Populism may be regarded as a “thin-centred ideology” with no core values which means that it always presents itself in combination with other worldviews. Particularly prominent in the V4 is the recurrence to a nativist and anti-immigration rhetoric, for which another Italian populist actor, the Northern League party (Lega Nord – LN), provides a crucial reference.

What is particularly interesting about the LN is its capacity to continuously forge “dangerous others”, which has proved to be a winning strategy. Originally born to represent the secessionist interests of the Northerners, the party has then acquired a broader anti-establishment stance no longer limited to the elites in the capital, but expanded to include the supposed new enemy of the people – the technocratic Brussels.

In addition, while being previously famous for vigorously attacking southerners, the LN now enjoys a significant support in this part of the country that, hit severely by the migration crisis, now finds it easier to follow the party’s xenophobic rhetoric, scapegoating immigrants for the region’s catastrophic economic performances.

The Vicious Circle of Populism

The risk of populism is thus not just in the supposed authoritarian turn it brings. On the contrary, approaching the phenomenon from such a perspective actually results in a rather reductionist approach, as any significant suspension of the democratic rule is indeed not very likely.

Populism’s more subtle danger lies in the activation of a destructive vicious circle. When disaffection is capitalized on and exploited through an idealized yet unattainable vision of popular democracy, citizens’ disgust toward the system will only intensify when expectations are not met. This will push citizens’ demand for more political outsiders, whose inexperience, empty promises but highly polarizing rhetoric represent the perfect recipe for a further disaster.

The Italian case shows that it is possible to survive to a populist drift, but not without significant political and social costs. For young democracies such as the V4 and their fragile social identities, these may be even more severe.

The author is a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham, currently based in Prague, where she serves as Project Manager for a local think tank. Her research interests lie in the fields of populism, security and political psychology.