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Italy, Old And New Avant-Garde Of Global Populism

From both the left and right, populist leaders in Italy are again at the forefront of the movement around the world.

Election posters for Five Star leader Matteo Salvini in Naples
Election posters for Five Star leader Matteo Salvini in Naples
Jacopo Iacoboni

TURIN — Italians went to the polls in a closely-watched election Sunday, and voters took a decidedly populist bent. As final ballots are tallied, a total of 50% of the vote went to either the populist Five Star Movement or the right-wing League, two parties that share a distaste for the Italian establishment and the European Union.

That result has drawn admiration from populist leaders around the world. Marine Le Pen celebrated on Twitter, calling it "a bad night for the EU." Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist to President Donald Trump, arrived in Italy a few days before the end of an election campaign season he glowingly defined as "pure populism."

Bannon has called Italy the "summa" (or pinnacle) of the populist wave sweeping the West. But before Sunday's vote, that wave seemed to have abated. After the blows of Brexit and Donald Trump's victory in 2016, Emmanuel Macron's defeat of Marine Le Pen in France and Angela Merkel's re-election in Germany had calmed nerves in Europe. Then came Italy, a country that has traditionally served as a sort of political laboratory where anything can be invented.

Five Star and the League may be on different sides of the political spectrum, but the half of the country that voted for them was attracted by common populist themes that both parties had campaigned on. Each rails against the status quo, Italy's traditional political parties, rising immigration, and the EU, as well as taking an increasingly critical stance towards large corporations and the wealthy.

While Italy's political leaders struggle to form a government with the hung parliament produced by Sunday's vote, the country has been effectively divided in two: mainstream parties on one side, populists on the other.

"This election is crucial for the global populist movement," said Bannon. "The most important takeaway is that if you add the polling numbers of other center-right and populist parties in Italy, that number rises to 65%, or almost two-thirds of the country voting against the political establishment."

Bannon's numbers include the party led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi among the populists, which is somewhat inaccurate. Nevertheless, his predictions about the prevailing political mood in Italy were largely borne out on Sunday.

Italian populists already have close ties with populist parties around the world. Bannon is close to Guglielmo Picchi, a League politician, and some have alleged he also knows Beppe Grillo, the former comedian and founder of Five Star. League leader Matteo Salvini is friends with National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen, while the Five Star Movement is allied with British populist Nigel Farage and former Le Pen ally Florian Philippot in the European Parliament. Berlusconi has a famously close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but so do all of the other populist parties in Italy.

His predictions about the prevailing political mood in Italy were largely borne out.

The populist wave can be measured by comparing the results of these parties in recent elections across Europe. In the French presidential elections last year, the FN won 21.3% in the first round and 33.9% in the second round — more than double the number of votes Le Pen's father won in 2007. Last September, the right-wing Alternative for Germany won 12.6% in parliamentary elections, almost 8% more than in 2013.

The Northern League, as it was then called before the ascent of Salvini, won only 4% in the last Italian elections in 2013. On Sunday, it became the country's third-largest party with over 17% of the vote. After exploding onto the political scene by winning 25.5% of voters in 2013, Five Star became the country's largest party with almost 33% of the vote on Sunday. The smaller, right-wing Brothers of Italy more than doubled the number of seats it won in 2013.

A few days before the election, Luigi Di Maio, the Five Star candidate for prime minister, was interviewed on Italian television. He was asked which foreign leader he would meet first in the case of a victory for his party: Trump or Putin. "Whoever asks me first," he replied. In the meantime, he knows he can always talk to Bannon.

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