Causes to the rise of populism in Italy

15 April 2019 /

This artice is a contribution from our partners at EU-Logos Athena.

Following the general elections of March 2018, for the first time ever one of the founding members of the European Union is now lead by a Eurosceptic government. After months of negotiations, the Five Star Movement (5SM) and the far-right League formed a grand coalition to hold the Italian Parliamentary majority, appointing as Prime Minister (PM) the neutral law professor Giuseppe Conte. How do we arrive at a similar defeat of mainstream parties after several years of absolute domination of Italian politics? The scope of this article is to address two factors, consistent with the political literature on European populism: one internal (crisis of representation) and one external (national media), to explain the failure of Italian traditional parties and the consequent rise of populism and Euroscepticism. The Italian case is exemplifying for the perfect combining of two key dynamics, since it addresses both the dimensions of EU politics that – among others – recently led to most of the critics: accountability and the media coverage. The “sickness” that has affected mainstream politics is an EU-wide phenomenon that should not be underestimated.

I. The crisis of mainstream actors

The analytical framework is composed as follows:

  1. We shall consider the Italian case as a crisis – although in its embryonic stage – by framing it into the European Integration theories on crises. The actual government approach to European politics has demonstrated to be likely to determine a decision-making situation of reduction of the actual level of (political) integration (F. Schimmelfennig, 2017).[1]
  2. The model we will use for the analysis is developed by Hanspeter Kriesi (2015) on the conditions for the rise of populism in Europe. We built two hypotheses, to be corroborated, based on this model:

a) Populist movements benefited from a crisis of representation of traditional parties;

b) National media are active players in the process.

3. We shall consider the League as a non-mainstream political actor in Italy for research purposes. Changes in governance, from Umberto Bossi secretariat to Salvini’s leadership, have radically changed the party’s political agenda (V. Raos, 2019).

Also, Matteo Salvini’s League has to be considered as a populist party, according to Kriesi’s model.[2]

I.I. Crisis of Representation

According to Hanspeter Kriesi model, populist parties benefit from a socio-political environment of widespread crisis of representation that occurs to mainstream politics – notably, pro-European integration parties like the Italian centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) and the centre-right Forza Italia (FI), led by Silvio Berlusconi.

As Table 1 shows (data source: YouTrend), starting from 2009, the aforementioned parties experienced a respective collapse in consensus among Italian voters.

Table 1

Table 2

The common thread between consensus’ dwindle for both FI (formerly Popolo delle Libertà – PDL) and PD is represented by the years of government in charge, as intended 2009-2011 for Berlusconi’s parties and 2013-2017 for PD.

The main driver for the crisis of representation is identified in the “constant tension between responsibility and responsiveness for mainstream parties” (H. Kriesi, 2015), thus between a party’s role of representation – and the commitment to its voting base – and the role of guarantor of wider national and supranational interests, notably EU politics’. For empirical results we shall consider the case of the PD, which under the premiership of Matteo Renzi first, and Paolo Gentiloni later, pushed for strong structural reforms whose sunk costs have shown tremendous impact in terms of loss of votes.

It is worth to notice how the major centre-left party in Italy reaches a peak in consensus during the last European elections of 2014 – with a 36.7% of Italians who trusted PM Matteo Renzi’s leadership, also ahead of the solid results obtained in EU elections indeed (40.7%). From that year on, PD’s consensus trendline became negative until the bottom-low of 18.76 % of the last general elections of March 2018 (see Table 2). From 2014 on, the PD – with the heritage of a debt/GDP ratio of 133.8% – is constrained between the political effort to keep and enlarge the electorate and the financial need of levelling Italian public debt, in order to comply with the EU fiscal rules and remain on track with the integration process.

Some of the policies and proposed reforms under the premiership of Matteo Renzi reflects this ambivalence, notably the Decree-Law 66/2014, a « €80 bonus » of fiscal leverage to eligible low-income households with – indeed – income redistribution’s aims (M. Bazzoli, S. De Poli, C. V. Fiorio, 2017) and the Constitutional Referendum held in December 2016.

The 2016 Referendum particularly shows how a strong commitment to the European administrative convergence challenge (M. J. Bull, 2015) – declined into the Referendum question as:

a) abolition of perfect bicameralism in the Parliament and

b) costs-cutting of institutions – is no priority for the Italian electorate, mainly because of the trans-political alignment of the No voters who were more interested in Renzi’s political stability (G. Pasquino & M. Valbruzzi, 2017).

The outstanding aftermath of the Referendum – 59.12% of contrary votes and Renzi’s consequent resignation – corroborate the hypothesis on the crisis of representation.

I.II.  The role of the media

The second hypothesis aims to verify national if media have an active role in determining the rise of populist parties, at the expense of mainstream politics. Kriesi describes a “ new media logic » of interpreting, selecting and adapting news to certain interests, from which particularly centralised and personified parties – like the « Salvini-centred » League – can take advance.

In this view indeed, the 5SM rapidly adapted to the media logic by switching from a pluralised approach of political communication, to a centralisation on the figure of its PM-candidate, the actual Deputy PM Luigi Di Maio[3].

The Italian case fits the model’s description.

We considered the migration issue for analytical purposes by the fact that ­- from 2013 on – it is constantly one of the most sensitive issues in the EU agenda (J. Park, 2015).

Table 3

Table 3 above (data source: InfoMigrants by ANSA) represents Italian media coverage of migration stories.

We consider data from the years 2016 – last year of PD government-in-charge, with PM Matteo Renzi – and 2017. As discussed in paragraph I.I., PD government’s Constitutional Referendum is the strongest deal-changer in Italian politics’ recent history. Renzi’s successor Paolo Gentiloni – former Foreign Minister – took over in 2017, but his cabinet was perceived as a transitional government that should have led to new elections (the one held the 4th of March 2018, indeed). Thus, we shall consider 2017 as the year of electoral agenda-setting for the former oppositions, overall the League and the 5SM.

The League, especially, based the electoral campaign on a harder approach toward illegal immigration[4], proof of which is the realisation of the decree-law (dl) 113/2018, known as “Decreto Sicurezza” (Security Decree) [5], under proposal of the Interior Minister and League’s leader Matteo Salvini, indeed.

Also, a migrants unfriendly and bi-lateral oriented agenda on such a critical issue revealed as a breakup point between the new born coalition-government and the European Commission, as well as some of the other MSs – as the cases of Aquarius[6] and Diciotti[7] have shown.

Therefore, media coverage on migration adapts and rapidly increases (see Table 3), assisting the massive and continuous campaign that populists made on it, through the dramatization and scandal-shifting tone of the news (H. Kriesi, 2015). National media actively contributes into pushing migration issue at the top of the electoral agenda, even though the issue itself did not constitute a priority, given the decrease in number of landed migrants (see Table 4 – data source: UNHCR).

Table 4

Migration stories on Italian newspapers grew from the 2016’s 4055 to a top 6059 in 2017, as well as news stories[8] that grew from average 189 to average 667 in one year; consequently, the number of shares for the stories uptrends from 953 to 2998.

Mainstream parties – like PD and the other centre-left parties overall – which have a more friendly and open-border position on immigration – are cut out by the media coverage on the topic.

For instance, news on safe and/or legal channels of migration in Italy remains marginal; humanitarian corridors[9] are cited in only 94 articles during 2017, as well as migrants’ relocation stories, that are the focus of only 86 articles.

II. Conclusion

Therefore, the two factors proposed and analysed seem to assume valid claims on the phenomenology of populism in the recent Italian case. The old “right-left” cleavage has been stretched by the lack of ability of mainstream actors in facing national and supranational challenges in an already financially fragile State. Thus, from this deepening populist parties emerged, benefiting also from a favourable agenda setting by the media.  That given, those aspects are not the only ones to be taken into account, as well as they’re not sufficient to extend the core of the analysis to all the Member States. Many other factors are concurrent to explain the upheaval of mainstream politics in Europe, especially the Euro crisis of 2008, but that goes beyond the purpose of this article.

Federico De Falco from EU-Logos Athena.

For further information:

Frank Schimmelfennig (2017), Theorizing Crisis in European Integration, in Dinan, Desmond, Neill Nugent, and William E. Paterson (eds.): The European Union in Crisis, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp. 316-336.

Gianfranco Pasquino & Marco Valbruzzi (2017), Italy says no: 2016 constitutional referendum and its consequences, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, volume 22, 2017 – Issue 2, pp. 145-162

Hanspeter Kriesi (2015), Populism. Concepts and Conditions for its rise in Europe, Il Mulino -Rivisteweb

InfoMigrants by ANSA (2017), More coverage of migration in Italian media, at

Martin J. Bull (2015), Institutional Reform in Italy to Respond to the EU Challenge: Renzi’s Constitutional Reform Project, Paper presented to the Conference, ‘The 2014 European Elections: Italian Politics and the European Challenge’, European Policies Research Centre, University of Strathclyde, 14-15 January 2015

Martina Bazzoli, Silvia De Poli, Carlo V. Fiorio (2017), The impacts of the Renzi government’s economic policies on income distribution, Romatrepress, at

Jeanne Park (2015), Europe’s Migrants Crisis, European Council on Foreign Relations, at

Višeslav Rao (2019), From Pontida to Brussels: the nationalization and Europeanisation of the Northern League, Anali 15(1), 105-128

YouTrend, Tabella riassuntiva dei sondaggi (2008-2017): lo storico, at

UNHCR, data on landing migrants in Italy, at

[1] 5SM-League government opted for an expansionary economic policy in 2019, voluntary breaching EU fiscal discipline’s rules (Growth and Stability Pact). The Commission bargained the amount of deficit spending to concede to the new government, but still estimates a negative impact of policies on the overall country’s growth. That led to a series of remarks. ( )

[2] Populism as a “political strategy” (instead of an “ideology”), adopted by particularly personalized parties (H. Kriesi, 2015).

[3] In September 2017 the 5SM asked the electoral base to pick the future PM-candidate for the party through an electronic vote in the web platform Rousseau. Among the most influent 5SM’s figures, Luigi Di Maio was the sole to be selected to run. Alessandro Di Battista, Roberto Fico, Danilo Toninelli and Beppe Grillo himself remained outside the run, thus determining an outstanding victory of Di Maio (85% of votes) over other semi-unknown activists or former MPs.


[5] The core policy issue of the dl 113/2018 regards restriction on the right to « humanitarian protection » (art. 5.6, Consolidated Text 286/1998) to only few cases – notably for civil merits, to victims of exploitation, domestic abuses and for health issues.



[8] A news story is a written or recorded article or interview that informs the public about current events, concerns, or ideas. It provides story ideas to journalists who then flesh out the idea to create the story as it appears.

[9] A humanitarian corridor is a type of temporary demilitarized zone intended to allow the safe transit of humanitarian aid in, and/or refugees out of a crisis region.

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