The late Catholic historian Pietro Scoppola called Cold War Italy “the Republic of Parties”. After the Cold War, Italy’s party system ceased to exist. However, one party, formed in 1989, has survived and is now the leading player in Italian politics: Matteo Salvini’s the League, formerly known as the Northern League. A junior partner in the Conte government, given its 17.4% share of the vote in March compared to the Five Star Movement’s 32.7%, the League has now moved beyond the 30% threshold in most polls, overtaking the Five Star Movement.
While Italian politics has tried to survive in a “post-political party” world, the League has adapted the concept of party to a new environment. The League has remained a party, the last party standing, while pursuing a structural change, with a strong and social media savvy leadership at the helm. This balance of seemingly different elements is part of its success and explains its lead over the Five Star Movement and other political forces in the Italian political scenario. With this in mind, we will examine key features of the League’s evolution and analyse its future challenges.
The nature of the party
First, the League is clearly a party because of its history, discipline and cadres.
The League has a strong tradition of local government in northern regions and cities and a number of representatives with strong political experience. Experience pays off in government, particularly if you are compared to people without any. Take Giancarlo Giorgetti, a key figure in a government that includes a party, the Five Star Movement, which has a two-term limit as one of its cornerstones. Giorgetti, however, has been in Parliament since 1996 and this creates a balance of power in the League’s favour.
The issue of discipline is very important in distinguishing the League from Italy’s chaotic centre-left parties. One never hears people from Salvini’s party arguing publicly with him on how the League’s money is spent or anything that might trigger a media investigation. On many issues (migration, for example) there are different views within the Five Star Movement, while The League projects a united front and has also started a political school for cadres, directed by Armando Siri, now in its fourth edition.
The nationalisation of the League
A lot of buses left from southern Italy to participate in the League’s annual gathering in Pontida on July 1st. Pontida is a symbol of the League’s northern identity, built on the idea of a north able to secede from the centre-south. But this identity no longer exists following Salvini’s master gamble: nationalisation.
Removing the word North from the League, and turning it into a national party was possible thanks to a series of factors. First, as said, becoming a political party; second, an international environment in which “history returns” in Europe, and sovereignty and the state are once again important as political concepts, just as they have always mattered in geopolitics; third, harsh opposition to migrants, now that migration has taken centre stage in Europe and Italy since 2015.
All this has enabled the League to build a strong ideology, unlike other political forces. While others claim to be “reformist” (a term with no ideological implications and no political momentum) and state that old politicians will be retired in order to start a “Third Republic”, the League’s message of “Italy first” is far clearer and stronger. By emphasizing the primacy of national identity, the League is able to dominate the right and attack the social and physical territory of the left, attracting industrial workers and destroying the concept of “red regions” (left-leaning) in central Italy.
The social media captain
Matteo Salvini has taken a party with 4% of the vote to over 30%. His strategy to promote the party at a national level also required contemporary skills, such as the mastery of social media and analytics, acquired thanks to the work of the digital philosopher Luca Morisi. Salvini, who calls himself “the Captain”, uses social media, particularly Facebook, to set the agenda, to be ever-present for his supporters and spread two different messages. The first is “common sense”, one of his favourite expressions, which he uses to lure moderates in favour of strong security, but not of strong language. The second is attracting the left’s mockery or disgust. Salvini deliberately wants to be mocked and ridiculed by leftist figures who consider him fascist or inhuman, because this makes him look stronger. And, at the end of the day, everybody talks about him.
The League’s challenges
The League’s power arises from the fact that there are no “post-political party” politics, there is no social media strategy separate from a strong ideology. While other forces naively continue to believe these post-modern fairytales, the League plays all the angles and its rise seems unstoppable, and this creates a band-wagon, particularly in southern Italy (in 2019 they could win regions such as Campania and Sardinia where the Five Star Movement is very strong). The League, however, still faces a number of challenges in the Conte government and in the coming months.
The first is overconfidence and Giorgetti has advised every minister to buy a picture of Matteo Renzi, to remind them that in today’s volatile political world, one can fall very fast.
The second challenge is the geopolitical context. The League’s ability to build alliances is still unclear. There are growing ties with Kurz and Seehofer, but the “art of the deal” among sovereignist forces in Europe requires a difficult balance of national interests and, therefore, the need to find common opponents such as the NGOs and Emmanuel Macron.
The third challenge is the party’s real attitude vis-à-vis the Conte government. Is the League willing to bring this government down so as to transform its rising consensus into a new parliamentary majority? Timing and ability will be the key, also given that President Mattarella does not favour Salvini, as weeks of consultations clearly showed.
The fourth risk is coping with the economy. Market constraints apply to everyone, therefore Italy’s 2019 budget could be disappointing and a number of proposals will have to be considered in a multi-year framework. A new recession in the U.S. will add further uncertainty.
Finally, the League’s opponents could aim to undermine party unity, looking for a (now unlikely) split between Giorgetti and Salvini, or for tension with the Veneto Region’s President, Luca Zaia.
If the League is able to navigate these challenges effectively, it could remain the driving force in Italy’s Republic of Parties.