Original Article Populism and the Italian right

Original Article
Populism and the Italian right
Carlo Ruzzaa,* and Stefano Fellab
Department of Sociology, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK.
University and College Union, London, UK.
*Corresponding author.
Abstract This paper documents and analyses how populist discourse was used in
very different ways by political entrepreneurs of the Italian right, leading to three
specific manifestations. The empirical range of populist ideologies is identified
through a frame analysis of party materials and connected to the varying political
and cultural opportunities of different kinds of parties. However, it is argued that
at the same time a common reliance on some common populist tenets constituted
an innovative strategy of the Italian right, and that as an ideology one of it’s
distinctive functions has been to act as a conceptual glue in a coalition which would
otherwise be deeply internally divided.
Acta Politica (2011) 46, 158–179. doi:10.1057/ap.2011.5
Keywords: populism; ideology; ethno-nationalism; center-right; frames
Following a period of unprecedented electoral success the centre-right coalition
presided over by Silvio Berlusconi since 1994 finally seemed to be unravelling
at the end of the 2010. The former leader of the post-fascist National Alliance,
Gianfranco Fini, withdrew support from the coalition and together with a
number of his loyalists joined the ranks of opposition in seeking (unsuccessfully) to bring Berlusconi down in a parliamentary vote of confidence in
December. The previous year, Fini had led the AN into a merger with
Berlusconi’s Forza Italia to form the new People of Freedom (Popolo della
Liberta`, PDL) party (under Berlusconi’s leadership), based on the electoral list
of the same name that fought the 2008 election. Following a number of public
disputes with Berlusconi, Fini claimed that he had been forced out of the PDL
in July 2010, when a number of his close allies were expelled from the party
and Berlusconi asked him to step down from his post of Speaker of the
Chamber of Deputies.
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The coalition between Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Fini’s AN had first been
forged in 1994 (when the AN was a mere electoral front for the neo-fascist
Italian Social Movement, MSI) and had been central to the centre-right’s
election victories in 1994, 2001 and 2008. The third critical element of this
coalition was the Northern League (Lega Nord, LN), a regionalist populist
party, which has at times advocated the break-up of Italy and is often
categorised as part of the family of new xenophobic radical right-wing populist
parties (RRPs) or extreme right populists (ERPs) in Europe. Whereas Fini and
the AN had remained loyal to the coalition continuously from 1994 to 2010,
the LN, and its charismatic and sometimes demagogic leader Umberto Bossi,
had initially been viewed as the more unreliable partner, having withdrawn
from the short-lived governing coalition at the end of 1994 (causing the
collapse of the first Berlusconi government) and fighting the 1996 general
election separately from the united AN-FI centre-right pole. The non-participation of the LN in the centre-right coalition was key to its defeat in the 1996
election and its return to the coalition was critical to the centre-right’s success
in the 2001 election. Subsequently, however, the political direction of the
coalition has rested closely on a populist political axis between Berlusconi and
Bossi (and their respective political parties) while Fini has sought to carve
out a separate identity for himself (and previously the AN party) as the more
moderate conservative element of the coalition, and the more respectful of
Italy’s constitutional proprieties. Fini’s election as speaker of the chamber
of deputies in 2008 allowed him to put particular emphasis on the latter
identity, but this brought him increasingly into conflict with Berlusconi and
other elements of the coalition.
Despite these later troubles, the electoral and political success of Berlusconi
and his centre-right coalition has been undeniable. In 2006, Berlusconi’s
government could lay claim to the considerable achievement (in Italian terms) of
managing to remain in office for a full parliamentary term, setting a record for
longevity in office for a post-war Italian government. Although the centre-right
was defeated by the narrowest of margins in the 2006 general election, the
collapse of the centre-left government in early 2008 paved the way for
Berlusconi’s third general election victory and return as prime minister in April.
Berlusconi’s successes have come against the backdrop of a number of
judicial investigations into his business activities, and continuing questions
about the apparent conflict of interests surrounding his ownership of Italy’s
three main private TV networks, as well as other media and general business
interests. The dispute between Fini and Berlusconi came amidst the backdrop
of a series of lurid allegations surrounding Berlusoni’s private life, involving a
number of young women, and his alleged misuse of public office to grant them
political and legal favour.1 These allegations have added to the controversy
surrounding Berlusconi’s style of leadership, the legality of some of his political
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and business activities and the conflict between his political position and his
personal, media and business interests.
Given the controversy surrounding Berlusconi’s leadership, the AN’s
neo-fascist heritage and the LN’s xenophobic discourse and negation of the
Italian nation-state, this article seeks to provide a set of explanations for the
continuing success of this coalition in Italy. This will involve an examination of
the ideological features of these parties, their organisational structure, the
importance of communication strategies and the role of the media (particularly
the part owned by Berlusconi), and the broader political and cultural
opportunities open to the coalition.
In this article we argue that the success of the Italian right can be explained
in terms of its populism – which consists of a set of loosely connected but
distinctive ideological traits – which has been skilfully connected to other
ideological elements that resonate with Italian society, using specific political
and extra-political resources to optimise electoral appeal. We will thus identify
the central and the peripheral elements of populism and explain their
contribution to the success of the right through an analysis of the values of
the electorate and of the electoral programmes of the right-wing coalition,
drawing some general conclusions on the fit between the right-wing voting bloc
and the political opportunity structure.
This article explores the ideological innovation in which the Italian right has
engaged. In the background, one should emphasise the impact of institutional
changes on the success of the right – most importantly changes in the electoral
law which engendered the construction of broad electoral coalitions on the
centre-right and centre-left. Moreover, the collapse of the Christian Democrat
(DC) party which had been the main party of government since the 1940s,
together with its smaller coalition allies, following the tangentopoli scandal
(revealing systemic corruption) in the 1990s, had created a political vacuum
which the new right-wing coalition was able to exploit. However, without a
conceptual glue that could hold together a nationalist party such as the MSI-AN
which favoured a strengthened Italian state, with an ethno-nationalist or
regionalist formation such as the LN which has favoured the break-up of Italy,
success would not have been possible. We posit populism as this conceptual glue.
To explain the superior performance of the right we will emphasise
ideological factors, the changing structural characteristics of Italian society
and the resources at the disposal of political actors. Following the traumatic
events of tangentopoli the right could re-invent itself in a fashion that was
more suited to the changes that Italian society was undergoing, while the left
remained fragmented and anchored to old ideological schemes. The right
has been able to innovate ideologically and to an extent find common
ideological elements to mask persisting divisions. It has been able to reflect the
socially conservative values ingrained in a sizeable part of the Catholic
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Church influenced electorate, while also interpreting a variety of anti-political
sentiments through ideological statements but also through markers such as a
distinctive use of political language and symbolism.
To these variables we should add the importance of political leadership and
the communications strategies of the leaders concerned. The leaders of these
three parties, Berlusconi, Bossi and Fini have proved particularly skilful and
adept in using distinctive leadership styles to exploit the opportunities provided
by the changing political circumstances of Italy since the early 1990s.
Berlusconi’s undoubted media skills have been crucial to his, and his coalition’s
success, as has his ownership of the leading private TV networks, which when
combined with the controlling influence he exercises of the state TV networks
when in power, has given the coalition a critical advantage over its challengers.
In contrasting the success of the right in Italy with its comparative failure
elsewhere, we stress a combination of political and cultural opportunities,
combined with successful agency on the part of party leaderships. A number of
authors have stressed the combination of such factors in explaining the
differing performance of the extreme or populist right in Europe. For example,
Rydgren sets out a framework based on the successful adaption and diffusion
of framing strategies – linked to the agency of particular parties and their
leaders – and expanding and contracting political opportunities (Rydgren,
2005a, p. 417). More broadly, Mudde stresses a combination of external
supply-side factors (that is, political opportunity structures) and internal
supply-side factors (the nature of the populist radical right parties themselves)
in explaining their differing success (Mudde, 2007, pp. 232–276). In Italy we are
analysing the success of a much broader right, in which the distinction between
extreme, radical and mainstream right is blurred. However, the emphasis on
the supply-side in explaining its success remains valid, given that we assume that
across Western Europe at least, the salience of issues that influence the demand
for such parties, such as immigration, law and order, concerns about globalisation and economic change and anti-political sentiment is broadly similar.
While the existing literature explaining the success of the populist right tends
to focus on movements on the margins of the political spectrum (often on the
extreme right), our work builds on the frameworks used to explain the success
of such movements to explain the success of a much broader populist
movement, consisting of several parties in a consistently successful electionwinning coalition. In the Italian case, we are facing a situation far less common
in the analysis of populist movements: a multi-party coalition with at least
partially divergent ideologies. We examine the dynamics that have enabled
Berlusconi to stitch together such a disparate coalition, using populism as a
conceptual glue. We will illustrate the framing mechanisms that have enabled
the identification and successful proposition of populism as a minimum
common ideological denominator.
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As noted in the literature on populism, different types (Canovan, 1981) exist,
but in the context of advanced liberal democracies, populism (particularly
when connected to ideologies of the right such as nationalism) is a weak
ideology (Freeden, 1996, 1998) with a loosely defined core and a changeable
periphery of concepts and related practices that are connected to other political
ideologies. The common core constitutes the ‘essence’ of the populist
phenomena. Beyond the core element – which is itself composite – there are
a host of peripheral elements. Their presence is related to the specific political
opportunities that different political formations seek to maximise. Different
populist formations will tend to follow different trajectories and appeal to
different strands of voters. Furthermore, the indeterminacy of populism is a
key constitutive ideological feature that responds to its need to be adaptable as
an ideology. There are therefore often few similarities between populist
formations beyond the core key elements.
We posit that the core features of populism consist of a distinct configuration
of ideas, styles and policies. (1) The core ideas present in all populist formations
are the predominance of appeals to the people over the heads of mediating
institutions, and anti-establishment discourse whereby a pure honest people is
juxtaposed against a distant, unresponsive, self-serving or corrupt elite, often
channelled through a charismatic leadership (relating closely to anti-politics,
whereby professional politicians and traditional political parties are portrayed
as corrupt, unrepresentative of the people, ‘all the same’, ‘selling the people out’,
and ‘only in it for themselves’, and so on); (2) a linguistic style which indicates
the anti-elitist character or appeal of the populist; (3) policies intended to
symbolise and justify dynamics of inclusion and exclusion – the adoption of
these policies constituting a quasi-tribal form of politics, in which a ‘tribe’ is
symbolically identified and protected (Edelman, 1973, 1988). The main
peripheral elements are other ideologies of reference, the territorial area and
political status of the ‘people’ of reference and the extent of the leader’s control
of his formation. The main context variables that orient the features of
peripheral elements are: the party system, the political environment (the
electoral law, and so on), individual party history and trajectory, and the
features of the civil society in which political opinion is formed.
In order to identify the ideological characteristics of the centre-right
coalition in Italy, and its populist elements, this article draws from an analysis
of the political programmes of its main components, the FI, AN and LN. In
order to examine these key documents, the methodology of frame analysis was
utilised.2 Public opinion surveys were also utilised in order to identify the fit
between ideology and electorate, and analysis was supplemented through
continued observation of statements and activities of the political parties and
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their leaders, as reported in the media and in the parties’ own literature, and
interviews with party activists.
Methodologically, this article assumes that populist, anti-political sentiments
and other concerns can be identified and measured both in survey responses
and in political texts. Political analysts have often faced the problem of assessing
the contents of political texts. Political parties communicate through texts of
various kinds, which have different formats, genera, styles and address different
audiences. Among these, political programmes are particularly relevant as they
often serve as common reference points, used to evaluate consistency with policy
choices in government, and with other forms of communication. They represent
a compromise among different internal ideological currents and are therefore
carefully prepared. In addition, because of these processes of collective elaboration they are good sources for comparison. However, as political programmes
are also expressions of utopian visions which parties rarely aspire to concretely
realise, we do not assume that they have a universal validity and thus supplement
them with our understanding of the parties’ communication strategies taken
from specific statements by their leaders.
To identify the main points of a political text is a difficult but crucial task.
Frame Analysis techniques are one of the most popular means to categorise
texts. Over the years several variants of this technique have been proposed and
tested (Johnston and Noakes, 2005). We have utilised a frame analysis
technique to identify the values emphasised by the political communications of
the three parties analysed. Framing refers to a tradition in social movement
research which relates to the concept of ideology, but it is not coextensive to it
(Oliver and Johnston, 2000; Snow, 2004). The concept of framing is both
narrower and more specific than the concept of ideology. The latter is broader
as it includes a set of dimensions such as concepts of an ideal society, of
appropriate moral values and of their relative importance. It is often however
identified in relatively static terms and only parts of it are employed in political
mobilisation. The concept of framing reflects the strategic and dynamic
mobilisation of specific ideological elements for political gain. It is therefore
more appropriate to the examination of political programmes where choices of
alignment with other ideologies, of differential selection and emphasis reflect
political contingencies, even if long term ones.
In our analysis, a small group of five analysts selected relevant texts, read
them carefully and dialogically identified key ideological elements. A few trials
were conducted on the sample materials to ensure sufficient reliability. Then
more extensive trials were performed on the actual materials to be analysed.
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New frames were added to accommodate for instances of discourse not
previously univocally coded with the scheme proposed. A total of 60 frames
emerged. While the initial scoring of texts was conducted using the list of codes
that all researchers had agreed typified the discursive universe of the Italian
right, each researcher could also add additional codes that uniquely characterised a specific document, producing therefore both a standardised comparison of contents but also an individualised and contextual reading. In other
words, of the 60 frames considered, most are applicable to all the parties, while
a small number were applicable to just one of the parties considered.
Each concept was then crystallised in an exemplary sentence and given a
label. After attributing a label to these elements, texts were scored to quantify
their occurrence.3 Each time a sentence in a document could be in principle
substituted with the exemplar sentence, one instance of the ideological frame
was recorded. Computerised analysis allowed quantitative manipulation of the
results. But more importantly it allowed the researchers to retain immediate
access to the relevant texts and compare them rapidly for consistency, and to
identify differences in political discourse of different parties and over time. This
approach assumes that the more a code is recurrent the more it is relevant in
the ideology which is being analysed. Thus a concept which is expressed twice
in two different paragraphs is recorded as a double occurrence of a frame. The
presentation of materials was conducted bearing in mind that texts differ in
length and this influences the number of frames identified. Thus for instance
the frame ‘law and order’ would be more prominent if it emerges 10 times in a
document in which overall 50 frames have been counted (20 per cent) than if it
emerges 15 times in a longer document in which a hundred frames have been
identified (15 per cent). In order to compare frame frequency across texts, we
then calculated and presented in our tables the percentage of each type of
frame over the total number of frames identified. However, when we
investigated the distribution of frames of each party during the entire period
we conceived their entire textual production as our unit of analysis and we
reported the absolute number of frames. In practice, the method utilised
consists of a structured reading of documents in which specific thematic issues
that characterise a document are identified. Their presence is then compared
over time and across political formations.
Populism in the Ideology of the Italian Right
Examining the three main constituent parties of the coalition in turn, the LN
reflects the core characteristics of populism: evocative rhetorical language and
symbolic policies emphasising belonging and drawing boundaries, and antipolitics, directed at Rome-based politicians. It also fits most clearly into the
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definitions of extreme right populism or populist radical right identified in
the literature (Rydgren, 2005b; Mudde, 2007, pp. 22–23). It should be noted
that anti-politics and anti-state sentiments are connected but not coextensive.
Anti-state sentiments have traditionally characterised several political forces
reacting to bureaucratic inefficiencies in several public services. The LN has
distinctly connected these inefficiencies to the asserted negative outcomes of
party-political competition in a situation of entrenched and sweeping political
corruption among all the main political actors (Ruzza and Schmidtke, 1993).
More specifically, the populism of the LN manifests itself in a rejection of
the institutional procedures of the Italian state and its actors. This relates both
to its antagonism towards the centralised Italian state apparatus and its
broader ‘anti-establishment’ ethos which also involves a rejection of national
political parties and a stress on the importance of a direct relationship with ‘the
people’. There is also an ethno-populism which pits a homogenous northern
Italian people against the migrant outsider (and most insidiously, the Muslim
migrant), who poses a threat to the identity and cohesion of the community,
and also a threat in terms of security and access to economic wealth and
resources. The LN’s specific brand of exclusionary ethno-populism is thus a
peripheral ideological element which links its populism to its right-wing
cultural essentialist nativism. While nativism is peripheral in that it is not an
essential element to all populist movements, it can be described as a core
element of the LN’s ideology, alongside it populism.
Figure 1 represents the most frequent ideological concerns as identified in
the frame analysis.
Turning to Forza Italia, in founding and leading the party, Berlusconi
has employed a number of core elements of populism. In particular, the
Figure 1: The LN’s main ideological frames (total n. 312).
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anti-politics quotient in Berlusconi’s political message is high. Berlusconi
continues to portray himself as a political outsider, in opposition to the career
politicians of the centre and left. Furthermore, Berlusconi’s charismatic leadership is central to the appeal of FI/PDL and to the centre-right coalition as a
whole. Berlusconi uses all the resources at his disposal, and his undoubted
abilities in communications, to transmit this appeal directly to the Italian people.
Indeed, reflecting a central core aspect of populism, direct appeals to the common
sense and wisdom of the Italian people – unmediated by the checks and balances
of liberal constitutional norms (such as judicial independence) – are frequently
made. The political language used by Berlusconi also reflects a core populist trait
– speaking the language of the ordinary man on the street, rather than the
politichese for which the politicians of the post-war republic were notorious.
Unlike the regionalist populism of the LN however, the populism of FI is
not territorially or ethnically circumscribed. As Tarchi notes, while the LN has
based its appeal on a notion of the people ‘as both ethnos and demos’, FI has
concentrated solely on the latter, giving voice to a popular mass, supposedly
neglected by distant self-serving elites, concentrating on an ‘anti-political, antiparty message’ (Tarchi, 2008, pp. 85–86).
Berlusconi’s message is designed to appeal to the Italian television watching
public of all classes, and across the Italian territory. Nevertheless, the nature of
political communications used – particularly the use of television – means that
certain sectors of Italian society are more exposed to this message (Mannheimer,
1994; Ginsborg, 2003). Moreover, whereas the LN can be characterised as
a populist movement, FI has in in some ways been more like a conventional
political party, within which ‘anti-political populism is entirely delegated to the
leader, who has made it a trademark of his political style, but not a source of
ideological inspiration’ (Tarchi, 2008, p. 86). While the LN’s populism is clear in
the analysis of its programmes and across all of its activities, that of FI was
confined more to the statements and communication style of its leader and
founder, and did not always come across that clearly in its documents which
sought to present the party as a mainstream centre-right force.
This brings us onto more peripheral aspects of populism. When it comes to
the relationship between the state and the economy, populist movements can
be protectionist or neo-liberal (or somewhere in between). While Berlusconi’s
populism reflects the catch-all ‘politician’s populism’ elucidated by Canovan
(1981), his entrepreneurial background, and his own personal and business
interests, mean that his populism is heavily coloured by neo-liberal laissez faire
ideology, and thus has a greater intrinsic appeal to certain sectors of Italian
society: the self employed, small and large business, and those sections of the
middle class employed in these sectors.
Political opportunities and political space are also highly relevant here, in
determining the form that Forza Italia’s populism has taken. Berlusconi’s
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decision to enter the political field in 1994 with his new party was determined by
the collapse of the old party system. This required the creation of a party that
could play a leading role in the mainstream of Italian politics, occupying the
position once held by the DC and attracting its voters. Thus its appeal needed to
be broad. Berlusconi would not have wanted to waste his time, and the financial
and organisational resources of his business empire, on creating a fringe populist
party to snap on the heels of the mainstream political establishment while being
unlikely to hold governmental power. A catch-all strategy was needed to win
over these voters. The construction of a liberal conservative political force was
thus required, appealing to conservative church-going Catholics who had
previously voted for the DC, while also representing the secular, consumerist and
materialist instincts of modern Italian society. At the same time, the need to
appeal across the Italian territory meant making different kinds of promises to
different parts of Italy – reflecting the different models of economic development
of different regions. Notably this meant promising tax cuts which would appeal
to the northern middle class, and major infrastructural projects to conservative
and state-dependent voters in the south. The main themes recurring throughout
FI documents are summarised in Figure 2.
As Figure 2 indicates, the general ideological profile of FI as reflected in all
its programmatic documents is mainly one of a typical centre-right party.
There are recurrent references to free-market policies, as the number of frames
categorised as ‘pro-free-market’ indicates. There are frequent references to a
conservative social ethos, as shown by the large number of references to
‘traditional family ethics’ to ‘law and order’ issues and concerns with crime and
security. The most prominent frame is the anti-bureaucracy one – linked to the
broader anti-establishment sentiment characteristic of populism but also
Figure 2: Most recurrent FI frames 1994–2006 (n. 312 – first eight frames n.190).
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taking on a neo-liberal pro-business orientation in the case of Forza Italia. It is
frequently argued that Italian inefficient bureaucracy is one of the main
obstacles to economic development. However, the references to ‘the people’
and the need to liberate them from the stranglehold of the bureaucratic Italian
state and an arrogant and inefficient Italian political class embody the spirit of
populism which in various ways pervaded FI.
The classification of the AN as populist is more problematic. In the early
1990s, it emerged from the anti-system neo-fascist ghetto in which it had
wallowed in its previous guise of the MSI for much of the post-war republic,
becoming a leading player in the Italian party system, viewed as a legitimate
party of government when it returned to office in 2001. Nevertheless, up until
its dissolution into the PDL, the AN remained troubled by an identity
torn between a desire to exploit the opportunities provided by the ongoing
transition of the Italian party system and an attachment to traditional
certainties. While one faction close to Fini advocated a liberal course, others
were more sympathetic to the aggressive right-wing populism of Berlusconi
(the destra protagonista current) or sought to emphasis a more traditional
statist and social protectionist path (the destra sociale current). Examination of
its documents reveals a set of positions that in many senses can be located
within the European centre-right mainstream. The most frequently recurrent
frames in the AN documents analysed are presented in Figure 3. The
preponderance of traditional themes, such as the emphasis on the family, the
need for strong executive leadership, and strong law and order and immigrant
control policies, is notable. Certain frames that could be characterised as
populist are also common: the anti-partitocrazia emphasis which came through
Figure 3: Recurrent AN frames – total n. 530.
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particularly in the early documents, vilifications of enemies (usually the left)
and the emphasis on the ‘people’. Also notable is the emphasis on liberty
(ranking second), related to the need for the AN to distance itself from its past
and emphasise its commitment to modern liberal democratic practice, while
shifting the focus onto the apparent state dirigisme of the left.
Given the positions taken on a range of issues and its behaviour in government
since 2001 (often acting as a moderating centrist influence in contrast to the more
provocative positions of the LN), the AN could no longer be placed in the
category of old style neo-fascist or extreme right parties. Furthermore, while
elements of populism had been utilised by the party to great effect and it had
benefited to a great degree from its membership of a political alliance greatly
reliant on populism, the party did not quite fit into the general categorisations of
right-wing or radical right populism found in the literature (Mudde, 2004, 2007;
Albertazzi and McDonnell, 2008). The AN’s earlier employment of an antipolitics stance, from which it benefited in the wake of tangentopoli, was populist
in character. However, this waned in later years and the AN sometimes found
itself on the receiving end of populist attacks on ‘recycled first republic politicians’. At the same time, a virulence in attacking its enemies remained, as did an
emphasis on national identity often found in the repertoire of populists. This was
linked to a strong stance on immigration control and against multiculturalism
which re-appeared periodically (particularly when the party was in opposition).
This reflected a tendency towards exclusionism which, notwithstanding Fini’s
attempt at a more moderate positioning in government, remained strong within
the party and is the staple of right-wing populism.
While perhaps being more peripheral to populist ideology and indeed not
being populist per se, the emphasis on family values and tough law and order
policies (more broadly its stance on traditional ethics), also lent itself to
populist appeals and, together with the tough stance on immigration, a
common ground with the other populist parties of the centre-right. However,
Fini’s leadership of the party while being strong and personalised – reflecting
the traditions of the Italian right – was not quite of the charismatic type usually
found in populist movements, and the organisation of the party was of a more
conventional form. In sum, conservative authoritarian tendencies remained
strong, despite Fini’s attempts to present the party as a modern secular and
liberal force. This was a reflection of the political culture of a party whose
leaders in the main spent their formative political years in the MSI’s youth
wing, and whose followers generally shared a strong belief in the values of
nation, family and church and a belief that the state has a strong role to play in
safeguarding their security and economic well-being.
The existence of different tendencies within the AN who did not share Fini’s
desire to present a more moderate and liberal conservative face was apparent in
the unwillingness of a majority of parliamentarians from the former AN part
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of the PDL to side with him in his dispute with Berlusconi in 2010 and only a
relatively small minority subsequently followed Fini out of the PDL, and into
his new formation Future and Freedom for Italy.
Core and Peripheral Elements in the Italian Populist Right
In terms of the core elements of populism identified above, all are clearly
present in the Italian case. Appeals to the people emerge consistently from the
analysis of programmatic documents, although the ‘people’ are conceptualised
differently across the parties (particularly in terms of the territorial framing of
reference). A populist style embedded in anti-political linguistic and symbolic
usage was recurrent in all the parties, even if the specific linguistic style was
different among them. All parties have utilised broader anti-political frames
which encapsulate the core of populism. In the case of the AN and FI, this is
illustrated by the prominence of anti-partitiocracy frames. In the case of the
LN, this is part of a broader anti-establishment discourse, which involves
virulent attacks on the entire apparatus of the central state. The broad antipolitical ideological cluster has been much used by all parties and has been
reinterpreted in a variety of ways in the language of the right, from a
glorification of markets against the state, to an anti-elitist localism and
advocacy of greater civil society involvement. In its former meaning it is
connected to the frame of anti-bureaucracy which also has a pro-market
undertone, particularly for FI. Conversely, for the LN the anti-bureaucracy
frame is used as a byword for its anti-central state ethos which is encapsulated
by an old and now characteristic slogan ‘Roma Ladrona’ (thieving Rome).
Table 1 summarises in order of priority the first 10 elements that our frame
analysis identified out of a total of 60 frames. After the tenth the number of
Table 1: Dominant frames in the Italian right
1 Traditional family Federalism and devolution Anti-bureaucracy
2 Liberty Traditional family Welfarism
3 Strong executive Localism Security
4 Anti-immigration Pro-welfare Traditional family
5 Anti-partitocracy Anti-bureaucracy Law and order
6 The people Against centralisation Pro-free market
7 Competitiveness Anti-assistentialism The people
8 Law and order The people Anti-partitocracy
9 Vilification of enemies Anti-Partitocracy Economic competitiveness
10 Nationalism Anti-Immigration Italian Military Role
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170 r 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 0001-6810 Acta Politica Vol. 46, 2, 158–179
instances declines rapidly and they can no longer be considered as very
representative of the discourse of these parties. Frames were identified as such
because there was a strong and generally self-evident relation between the
conceptual title we attributed to the frame and specific wording that could
generally be recognised as reflecting this conceptual title. Some frames had to be
pitched at a more abstract level as many linguistic indicators could be utilised. For
example: the frame ‘welfarism’ related to a positive evaluation of the welfare
state in the sense of a duty of the state to spend public money to improve the
social or economic welfare of citizens; the frame ‘localism’ referred to an emphasis
on the local level as the most important political area of reference for citizens; and
the frame ‘anti-partyocracy’ referred to the identification of political parties as
responsible for a dysfunctional role in Italian politics and society.4
Most of the ideological elements listed are solidly part of the family of rightwing concepts as they also appear in other EU countries but many are peripheral to populism. Some of them are shared by all the parties and constitute
the grounds on which a thematic unity could be constructed or at least
represented to public opinion over the years. Some of them are more conducive
to a ‘populist’ interpretation than others. Among the elements where a populist
interpretation has proved most advantageous for the right, apart from the
mythology of ‘the people’ as an undifferentiated entity, which we defined as
also part of the core elements of populism, is the thematic cluster on migration
and the related connections to security. With reference to migration, one could
identify an ethno-populist interpretation which stresses threats to national or
local identities, the distribution of economic resources and fears relating to
crime and security. The is particularly characteristic of the LN, while the AN
focused more on identity issues and the need to combat clandestine immigration. The FI was more circumspect on this issue though there were occasional allusions to the threat of multi-culturalism from Berlusconi and other FI
More peripheral elements, such as the emphasis on competitiveness and
traditional values, were less conducive to populist interpretations – they did not
result in anti-elitist rallying cries or in emotional but vague populist language.
They did however play the function of keeping the coalition together. There
were for instance several widely publicised and well-attended initiatives
connected to these themes, such as a ‘family day’ which brought a large
number of participants out onto the streets of Rome in 2007.5
Mythologies of the Right and their Fit with the Electorate
This article does not conceptualise the success of the Italian right as an
expression of marked intolerance and xenophobia – an approach which would
Populism and the Italian right
r 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 0001-6810 Acta Politica Vol. 46, 2, 158–179 171
be more appropriately used to explain the occasional successes of the extreme
right. The Italian right-wing coalition has represented the vote of close to half of
Italians voting in national elections. In Italy, as elsewhere, there is an element of
insecurity that affects many social institutions –insecurity in the workplace,
insecurity with reference to key state services as a consequence of the retrenchment of the welfare state, insecurity related to fundamental demographic
changes and migratory phenomena. As these elements are present in the mind
of most Italians, and are in fact widespread throughout the electorate, the
appeal of the right in recent years can be understood in terms of its better ability
to propose acceptable policies to face these insecurities within the confines of a
political discourse judged acceptable by a large section of the population.
Political communication has changed significantly in Italy (Novelli, 2006).
The increased reliance on sound bite news, the personalisation of politics and
reliance on political leaders as a source of news, info-entertainment and the
emergence of some politicians as television personalities have given new power
to both the right – which can more easily justify reliance on leaders – and to all
populist framings, the simplistic discourse of which are more attuned to recent
media formats. Of course in Italy this is compounded by Berlusconi’s control
of important sectors of the media, but it could be argued that the general trend
in political communication is not unlike that taking place in other countries.
Even within this generally favourable context, however, the Italian centre-right
has been very successful – more successful than elsewhere in Europe. An
explanation of this success must consider in more detail the mix of ideologies
deployed and the features of the Italian electorate, its values and composition.
We can identify in populism the glue that held the right-wing coalition together
and we can argue that – at least to an extent – it also addressed the worries of
the Italian population at large. We now need to examine more analytically the
preferences of the right-wing electorate, in particular in relation to the
ideological offering that we have identified with the frame analysis.
Anti Politics, Populism and Xenophobia
The long-term legacy of tangentopoli was to further undermine trust in the
political system, a level of trust that was already endemically low, due to the
legacy of the processes of formation of the Italian state. Anti-political
sentiments were thus widely distributed across the electorate. Italy is positioned
on several indicators among the countries where politicians and political
institutions are less trusted, and where political activity is less understood
by the population. For instance, in 2002 only 40 per cent of Italians
trusted their parliament and assigned a score higher than 5 on a 1 to 10 scale –
a similar figure emerged in 2004; this is less than most other West European
Ruzza and Fella
172 r 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 0001-6810 Acta Politica Vol. 46, 2, 158–179
countries – although more than ex-communist states (ESS 2002 data – variable
trstprl5). They trust politicians even less, with only 6.5 per cent in 2002 and in
2004 assigning a score higher than 7 (on a 1 to 10 scale) (ESS 2002 data).
In Italy, the right has been more able to claim that its leaders were not part of
the political class. The right has benefited from a self-reinforcing cycle of mutual
influence between the media sphere the political sphere which has connected the
anti-political sentiments of the electorate to its own discourse. We have created an
index of ‘anti-politics’ based on answer to three questions related to attitudes
towards professional politicians.6 The results are illustrated in Figure 4.
As we see, anti-political sentiments are generally high and relatively evenly
distributed in the entire population, and while significantly present across all
party electorates are particularly well represented among those of the right
(the F test for the difference between means was significant). These findings
correlate with our analysis of the discourse of the parties, which also classified
the LN as the most anti-political party, followed by FI and AN. This finding
indicates that party discourse has been well tailored to public sentiment.
Concerns about race and ethnic identity are also crucial in explaining the
success of the right and gained new prominence in Italy on the back of
increased immigration flows since the beginning of the 1990s. We have
constructed an index of xenophobic sentiments in the Italian population and
examined its relevance for the 2006 electorate. From Figure 6, we see that
concerns about immigration and identity are generally relevant in the Italian
population, and are particularly high in the parties of the right.7 Once again,
the discourse of the parties on these issues follows closely the perceived
relevance for their electorate(Figure 5).
In Italy the success of the right is often explained with reference to a complex
set of sociological factors pertaining to the social profile of its electorate, its
Rif. Comunista
4.21 Margherita
4.06 UDC
Forza Italia
Lega Nord
Figure 4: Relevance of anti-political sentiments in selected electorates (index, range 1–9, Itanes
2006, n. ¼ 702). Test F sig. o0.05.
Populism and the Italian right
r 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 0001-6810 Acta Politica Vol. 46, 2, 158–179 173
feelings of insecurity, increased ethnic rivalry, disaffection with politics and
social displacement connected to various aspects of globalisation. As for
the European populist right in general, the electorate of the Italian right is
generally rather older and less educated, and for these reasons less able to face
some of the challenges of globalisation (Norris, 2005).
However, the vote for the coalition has cut across socio-economic groups,
though with some fluctuations. This relates to other features that stand out
prominently in the Italian case. What emerges clearly and more powerfully
from attitudinal studies is a connection between cultural traits and voting. The
Italian right-wing electorate is diffident towards others in general, has low
levels of social capital, and is strongly materialist in Inglehart’s terms (Baldini
et al, 2001). In Italy, the media-related personalisation of politics has been
enhanced by the shift to a predominantly majoritarian electoral system. The
6.37 UDC
Forza Italia
Lega Nord
Environmental protection as first priority
Figure 6: Environmental protection as first priority (Itanes 2006, n. ¼ 881, mean score for group,
Test F sig. o0.05).
Rif. Comunista
Forza Italia
3.87 AN
Lega Nord
Index of Racism
Figure 5: Index of xenophobia on a scale 1–6 (Itanes 2006, n. ¼ 730, range 0–6).
Ruzza and Fella
174 r 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 0001-6810 Acta Politica Vol. 46, 2, 158–179
electoral reform of 1993 provoked a bipolar tendency and focus on coalition
leadership that together with the expanding television offering of non-state
channels promoted a political competition based on personality previously
unknown in Italy. It created a strongly fractious climate that many observers
have lamented in recent years. This climate has persisted despite the partial
retrenchment from majority voting of the electoral law of 2006 (Barisione et al,
2006). It is a polarised climate that is not necessarily strongly connected to
socio-demographic indicators. Evaluations of rival candidates to lead the
government do not appear strongly related to socio-demographic variables
(Baldini et al, 2001, p. 129; Barisione et al, 2006, p. 67). A cultural-ideological
explanation thus appears necessary – an explanation that better accounts for
the widespread support for the right beyond demographic categories.
Our explanation stresses the importance of the ideology of the Italian right,
and the role of the media in diffusing it. The electorate of the Italian right is
strongly exposed to the television channels of Berlusconi and therefore
to the ‘personalisation’ of politics that has marked the political offering of
several countries in recent years. Research has identified a greater likelihood to
vote for FI among those sectors of the population (irrespective of socioeconomic status) who watch the most television (Mannheimer, 1994, pp. 38–40;
Ginsborg, 2003, p. 6).
But even beyond the role of the media, the ideologies proposed by the Italian
right in response to challenges such as immigration have had a stronger echo in
the Italian population than other European countries where the populist right
has not had such success. This, we would argue, was in part because of the need
for cultural protectionism, which was not addressed by other parties, and in
part because the right appeared to respond more than the left to other
problems – particularly the perception of a growing gap between politics and
society, which the populist discourse of the right addressed directly.
Modern politics increasingly articulates the divide between a traditional and
a modern set of values on relevant social issues. Another reason for the success
of the right could then be that the traditional values that the frame analysis has
evidenced relate to a corresponding set of attitudes in the population. To
address this issue, in this comparative examination of the concerns of the
electorate and the fit of the parties discourse, it is worth concluding with a
discussion of the nature of the Italian right in terms of the post-materialist
dimension. Much has been written on the thematic expansion of the right in
Europe. Themes such as gay rights were claimed by the Pim Fortyn party in
the Netherlands, and similar post-materialist themes have been incorporated
by the French Nouvelle Droite thinkers. In Italy, however, the expansion of
politicised issues by the right – to the extent that it has occurred – has taken
place in a socially moderate direction, and has not concerned a reinterpretation
of post-materialist themes. As an illustration, one can look at environmental
Populism and the Italian right
r 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 0001-6810 Acta Politica Vol. 46, 2, 158–179 175
issues, where right-wing parties show evidence of retaining the traditional
scepticism of the old right. This attitude is represented in Figure 6, which
shows the electorate of Italian right holding the lowest level of concern for
environmental pollution.
Conclusions: Explaining the Success of Populism in Italy
Taken together, the data presented above give an indication of the way in
which the right has addressed issues that are central to the Italian population,
and with some exceptions, they show that despite differences of emphasis, the
right at least on some issues such as ‘law and order’ and a negative approach
to migration, produced a relatively convergent ideology that resonates with
their electorate. Of course, the differences were in many respects as large as the
similarities – and, in the case of AN, they were also internal to the party.
Considering the three periods of government since 1994, internal tensions
certainly played a detrimental role for the centre-right and made governing less
effective. But, to an extent, the differences of emphasis also had the role of
broadening their electoral appeal. Irreconcilable differences were only seldom
presented to the electorate and appeared balanced by tensions within the left,
which particularly in recent years has been torn by strong tensions between its
radical and reformist wing.
We posit that each of the three rights operated a successful conjunction of
distinctive right-wing themes and populist ideological elements. In explaining the
success of the Italian right in a more global context, we need then to distinguish
between political opportunities, and cultural opportunities, which can be related
to factors pertaining to the structure of political communication and leadership,
and agency factors related to parties’ communicative strategies. Political opportunities for the right came from changes in the electoral law which forced a
previously unknown bipolar system and a political culture of bitter confrontation
onto Italian politics, but more importantly from the collapse of the post war
party system, creating a vacuum that required a whole new set of parties to be
invented or reinvented and allowing for a degree of political experimentation that
would have been impossible in other ‘frozen’ Western European party systems
(Lipset and Rokkan, 1967). This political culture was more conducive to a coalition with a strong leader – perceived as such by both left and right (Barisione,
2006, pp. 20–26) – than to the fragmented leftist coalition.
In addition to political opportunities, cultural opportunities have also played
a role. In Italy, the success of the right relied on its mastery of the values
of social conservatism entrenched in Italian political culture following decades
of Christian Democratic rule. It also utilised fears about migration, security
and perceptions of ethnic rivalry for jobs and resources of the welfare state,
Ruzza and Fella
176 r 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 0001-6810 Acta Politica Vol. 46, 2, 158–179
which are widely shared in other European polities. Because of the distinctive
Italian patterns of media ownership, the right has been better able to exploit a
general trend that several observers have noted towards a media-oriented
redefinition of political competition (Mazzoleni, 2008, p. 58). If there is a
general European trend towards ‘soft populism’ whereby all political actors are
increasingly aware of the role of the media, learn to use media outlets and prefer
them to other political arenas, this knowledge and the ability to take advantage
of media resources is differently distributed, and this is particularly the case in Italy.
About the Authors
Carlo Ruzza (MA SUNY, PhD Harvard) is Professor of Political Sociology
at the University of Leicester. His publications with Stefano Fella include
‘Reinventing the Italian Right: Territorial Politics, Populism and PostFascism’ (Routledge, 2009). His journal articles on the right include ‘Italy:
the Political Right and concepts of civil society’ Journal of Political Ideologies
15(3) (2010). His book publications include ‘Europe and Civil Society:
Movement Coalitions and European Governance’ (Manchester University
Press, 2007). His edited volumes include ‘Conflict Citizenship and Civil
Society’ (co-edited with P. Baert, S. Koniordos, G. Procacci) (London,
Routledge, 2009) and (with Vincent Della Sala) ‘Governance and Civil
Society: Policy Perspectives’ and ‘Governance and Civil Society: Normative
Dimensions’ (both with Manchester University Press, 2007).
Stefano Fella writes on Italian, British and EU politics. In addition to his coauthored book with Carlo Ruzza (see above), recent book publications include
‘New Labour and the European Union: Political Strategy, Policy Transition
and the Amsterdam Treaty Negotiation’ (Ashgate, 2002) and (as co-editor with
Mary Farrell and Michael Newman) ‘European Integration in the TwentyFirst Century – Unity in Diversity?’ (Sage, 2002). He has also edited a special
issue ‘Politics in Italy – Still in Transition’ of the Journal of Southern Europe
and the Balkans 8(2) (August 2006) and published articles in Politics and Policy,
Parliamentary Affairs, Political Quarterly, and Modern Italy.
1 In 2009, a number of media outlets within and outside of Italy began reporting on Berlusconi’s
relationships with a number of young women, some of whom were identified as paid escorts, and
allegations of promises by Berlusconi in terms of help in their media and political careers
(including their possible insertion onto party electoral lists), and political interventions to aid
their business interests. In October 2010, a story broke that Berlusconi had personally called a
police station to secure the release of a 17-year-old woman who had apparently previously
Populism and the Italian right
r 2011 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 0001-6810 Acta Politica Vol. 46, 2, 158–179 177
attended one of his notorious parties and then later been arrested for theft. It was reported that
Berlusconi had falsely claimed that the young lady in question was the grand-daughter of
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. In relation to the latter case, it was reported in the Italian
press in January 2011, that Berlusconi had been put under investigation by Milan prosecutors for
allegedly paying for sex with an under-age prostitute.
2 These findings are examined at greater length in Ruzza and Fella (2009). The documents
analysed were the founding document of the AN in 1995, and the texts of its programmatic
congresses of 1998, 2001 and 2006, the electoral programmes (or guides for candidates) of the LN
for the 1994, 1996, 2001 and 2006 elections. For Forza Italia and in view of its dominant role on
the entire coalition we considered the FI election manifestos of 1994 and 2004 (European
elections) and joint manifestos of the Polo or CDL for 1996, 2001 and 2006, as well as the FI
Carta di Valori (Charter of Values).
3 The authors would like to thank Paolo Pasi, Mara Dalmonech and Giulia Bigot for their work in
collating and analysing the documents and elaborating the data. Thanks also to Enzo Loner for
his help with the methodology.
4 The frames presented are, in the main, not the result of aggregation of smaller frames into larger
all-encompassing frames. However, two aggregation of frames were conducted for presentational
purposes in Figure 1. First, the frame ‘federalism’ and ‘devolution’ were initially kept separate
but then unified to tap into the underlying dimension in all its aspects. Second, anti-immigration
was initially operationalised in terms of a set of dimensions which included concerns for personal
security and rivalry for welfare state resources and jobs. However, for presentational purposes
these dimensions were later aggregated.
5 This was a large rally organised on 11 May 2007 by Savino Pezzotta, a Catholic ex-trade-unionist
and well attended by the right. See Family Day, anche Berlusconi in piazza. Il Corriere, 11 May
6 Figure 5 shows the results of a one-way Anova (test F of difference between groups: sign.¼ 0.007).
The anti-politics index was created with the following questions (possible answers from totally
disagree to completely agree on 1 to 4 scale: ‘Che governi la destra o la sinistra, le cose non
cambiano’; ‘I politici sono in maggioranza corrotti’; ‘Negli ultimi vent’anni, la classe dirigente
italiana ha completamente fallito’. (‘Things do not change whether the right or the left rule’; ‘The
majority of politicians are corrupt’; ‘In the last twenty years the Italian political class has
completely failed’). The one-dimensionality of the index has been evaluated by means of principal
component analysis (per cent of variance explained from the first component extracted: 53.5 per
cent). According to these questions a score ranging from 0 to 9 was assigned to each respondent.
7 Figure 6 shows the results of a one-way Anova (test F of difference between groups:
sign. ¼ 0.000). The index of xenophobia was created with the following questions (possibile
answers from totally disagree to completely agree on 1 to 4 scale: ‘E’ giusto permettere ai
musulmani di costruirsi delle moschee sul territorio italiano’; ‘Gli immigrati, se sono regolari e
pagano le tasse, dovrebbero votare alle elezioni amministrative del comune dove abitano’ (‘It is
right that Muslims should be allowed to build Mosques in Italy’; ‘If they are legal residents and
paying taxes, migrants should be able to vote in local elections’). The one-dimensionality of the
index has been evaluated by means of principal component analysis (per cent of variance
explained from the first component extracted: 69.6 per cent). According to these questions a
score ranging from 0 to 6 was assigned to each respondent.
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Not at all. All papers are written from scratch. There is no way your tutor or instructor will realize that you did not write the paper yourself. In fact, we recommend using our assignment help services for consistent results.

What if the paper is plagiarized?

We check all papers for plagiarism before we submit them. We use powerful plagiarism checking software such as SafeAssign, LopesWrite, and Turnitin. We also upload the plagiarism report so that you can review it. We understand that plagiarism is academic suicide. We would not take the risk of submitting plagiarized work and jeopardize your academic journey. Furthermore, we do not sell or use prewritten papers, and each paper is written from scratch.

When will I get my paper?

You determine when you get the paper by setting the deadline when placing the order. All papers are delivered within the deadline. We are well aware that we operate in a time-sensitive industry. As such, we have laid out strategies to ensure that the client receives the paper on time and they never miss the deadline. We understand that papers that are submitted late have some points deducted. We do not want you to miss any points due to late submission. We work on beating deadlines by huge margins in order to ensure that you have ample time to review the paper before you submit it.

Will anyone find out that I used your services?

We have a privacy and confidentiality policy that guides our work. We NEVER share any customer information with third parties. Noone will ever know that you used our assignment help services. It’s only between you and us. We are bound by our policies to protect the customer’s identity and information. All your information, such as your names, phone number, email, order information, and so on, are protected. We have robust security systems that ensure that your data is protected. Hacking our systems is close to impossible, and it has never happened.

How our Assignment Help Service Works

1. Place an order

You fill all the paper instructions in the order form. Make sure you include all the helpful materials so that our academic writers can deliver the perfect paper. It will also help to eliminate unnecessary revisions.

2. Pay for the order

Proceed to pay for the paper so that it can be assigned to one of our expert academic writers. The paper subject is matched with the writer’s area of specialization.

3. Track the progress

You communicate with the writer and know about the progress of the paper. The client can ask the writer for drafts of the paper. The client can upload extra material and include additional instructions from the lecturer. Receive a paper.

4. Download the paper

The paper is sent to your email and uploaded to your personal account. You also get a plagiarism report attached to your paper.

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Delivering a high-quality product at a reasonable price is not enough anymore.
That’s why we have developed 5 beneficial guarantees that will make your experience with our service enjoyable, easy, and safe.

Money-back guarantee

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Zero-plagiarism guarantee

Each paper is composed from scratch, according to your instructions. It is then checked by our plagiarism-detection software. There is no gap where plagiarism could squeeze in.

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Free-revision policy

Thanks to our free revisions, there is no way for you to be unsatisfied. We will work on your paper until you are completely happy with the result.

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Your email is safe, as we store it according to international data protection rules. Your bank details are secure, as we use only reliable payment systems.

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