Democracy in Italy at Stake

Listen To Europe Analysis

On 8 January, Italian football team Lazio was fined 20,000 euros after their fans racially insulted Brescia’s player Mario Balotelli with racial slurs. This is not an isolated incident. Last November, Liliana Segre, an 89-year-old Italian Holocaust survivor and senator for life, was assigned police escort after receiving thousands of threats on social media by neo-fascist organisations and their supporters. This decision came after Ms. Segre proposed the establishment of a parliamentary commission to combat hatred, antisemitism and racism, a vote which was abstained by Matteo Salvini’s League Party and all the other right and far-right parties.

This egregious episode represents the umpteenth case of racism and intolerance in Italy, a country impregnated with anger, frustration, and experiencing a worrisome neo-fascist revival.

To understand what is driving all this, the European Movement International conducted opinion polls in 13 Member States (among them Italy). Our intention was to delve into the drivers of democratic and authoritarian sentiments and attitudes on the key issues of our time. The results are very telling about the condition of democracy in Italy and the reasons behind the current success of far-right parties.

The first thing the data reveals is that only 34% of Italian citizens consistently support democracy. To make a comparison, 68% of Danes share a strong pro-democratic position. At the same time, Italians feel abandoned by the State and helpless. For instance, only 7% of Italians strongly agree that they can make a difference in their government, while 52% feel alienated.

The impact of the 2008 world economic crisis on Italian citizens is still playing a crucial role, bringing about inequality, uncertainty and poverty. According to our data, 87% of Italians rate the national economy fair or poor. Greece is the only country which scored lower.

Furthermore, the European Union is blamed for worsening the economic conditions of the Italian economy. Over 30% of citizens agree that the budget austerity measures set by the EU Commission are an affront to Italy, while 62% of them agree that these measures have led to cuts in public services and pensions. Consequently, anti-European sentiments have penetrated the mind of many Italian citizens. 49% of Italians are unfavourable to the EU, and Italy is the only country in the poll which does not consider the EU as important to its future. These findings are consistent with the latest Eurobarometer survey on international trade.

Italians trust the national Parliament more than the European Parliament. 67% of citizens agree that they want to change the Union as it is presently designed. They perceive negative EU attributes (“intrusive”, “remote”, “a threat to Italy’s sovereignty”) as more relevant than the positive ones (“democratic”, “effective”, “important to the country’s future”). When asked what word best describes the EU, 19% of citizens chose the word “remote” which is the top word according to our data. Interestingly, all other countries in our survey has “important to [our country’s] future” as the top word when describing the EU, apart from Greece where 38% of citizens see the EU as “intrusive”. In this context, Italian citizens believe that the EU should focus more on respecting national sovereignty.

Salvini has taken advantage of and exaggerated this feeling of disempowerment and discontent. He has put immigration very high on his agenda and has based his political strategy on slogans and reactionary positions that aim to capitalise on it. “Italians first”, “let’s close the ports”, “stop the invasion” are just a taste of his rhetoric, churned out by his powerful propaganda machine. Once again, our polls provide interesting information. 46% of Italians agree that “Italy would be stronger if we stopped all immigration”, and 47% believe that immigration poses a threat to public safety in the country, and agree that “If Italy keeps its ports closed to migrants, fewer people will leave Africa and die in the Mediterranean.” Interestingly, though, 54% of Italians agree that “immigrants are human beings, it is our moral duty in the country to help them.”

Salvini is also someone who does not hide his authoritarian tendencies. He has gone as far as publicly asking the Italians to give him “full powers”. Our poll shows that Italians have been seduced by this seemingly charismatic and forceful politician, with 52% of Italians holding a favourable view of Salvini. At the same time, our research shows that 72% of Italians agree that “political extremism is a threat to Italian democracy and democratic institutions”, one of the highest percentages among the countries assessed.

Our research depicts a very worrisome and conflicting picture of Italian citizens. Divisions and turmoil are widespread across the country. The rise of populism, accompanied and aided by a structural crisis of political ideologies and the deterioration of the role of once leading political parties, has exasperated Euroscepticism, racism, anti-immigration rhetoric, parochial conservative views, and so forth. It seems citizens are bewildered and disoriented resulting in a very volatile electorate.

The Five Star Movement, with its anti-establishment stance, found its way to government, but has no clear electoral constituency. The far-right League, which received 34% of the votes in the May 2019 European elections and is currently polling at nearly 30% nationally, has emerged as the strongest political faction in Italy and the dominant party on the right of the political spectrum. Salvini has succeeded in catalysing the votes of an already unsettled electorate throughout the country. He is happy to join forces with Brothers of Italy, a descendant of the post-fascist Italian Social Movement, as well as Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia.

Nevertheless, the recent mass demonstrations against Salvini and populism in the region of Emilia Romagna and in many other cities, both in Italy and throughout Europe, show that civic campaigns and resistance against extremism remain strong. Thousands of Italian citizens, the Sardines Movement, took to the streets to protest the populist and often anti-democratic narrative, without carrying flags or political symbols. Normal citizens stepping up in defence of the fundamental democratic principles of our society.

Better late than never.