[Editor’s Note: I-CONnect is excited to feature a special symposium on the Italian general election of March 4, 2018. The symposium will feature four parts, including this Introduction. We are grateful to Professor Antonia Baraggia for convening this symposium. We hope it will illuminate some of the quite fascinating and important political and constitutional questions arising out of the election.]
—Antonia Baraggia, Assistant Professor of Comparative Law, University of Milan, Italy.
Following the March 4th 2018 general election, Italy experienced the rise and the victory of an anti-establishment party and of a strongly right-wing party: respectively, the Five Star Movement emerged as the first political actor (32% of the votes) and the North League emerged as the first party (17% of the votes) of a coalition of center-right forces supported by 37% of the electorate.
Both parties, which after three months of negotiations finally entered into a very peculiar coalition government, seem to be strongly euro-sceptic, and many observers have pointed out that this strange Italian government coalition could strengthen the general trend of the rise of populism experienced by other democracies around Europe.
At first sight, this analysis is partly true: without doubt the multiple crises faced by Europe (the refugee crisis and the economic crisis) and the apparent powerlessness of public institutions at both the national and European levels to successfully tackle the crisis, have unveiled the limits and the contradictions of the social-democratic state, fostering popular discontent and the perception of insecurity.
These are exactly the notes struck by both the Five Star Movement, which proposed the introduction of a general basic income, and the North League, with its anti-immigrant and euro-sceptic campaign.
If these features seem to concur in labeling the Italian situation as an example of the rise of populism across Europe, there are other aspects to be considered which make the Italian case quite unique in a comparative perspective. In fact, the Italian populist turn is the result of a multifaceted process, which presents elements of continuity and of novelty with regard to the past.
Starting from the elements of continuity we should emphasize that the victory of an anti-establishment party is not completely new in Italian political history; as Müller argues “although Berlusconi is now regarded as a representative of the mainstream center-right, it’s conveniently forgotten that he governed, together with what was then still called the Northern League, by claiming that he alone defended “real,” “ordinary” Italians against the supposedly alien left-wing elites”.
Another aspect of continuity is the process which led to the formation of a “coalition government” as the result of the so called “consultations”, a praxis rooted in the past, especially in the “First Republic”. Instead of starting a new path, the present political situation seems to bring back Italian politics to a model of consensual democracy, stopping the transition toward the majoritarian/ bipolar systems that started in the early ’90s.
What is really unprecedented and what makes Italy different from other countries experiencing the populist wave are a) the heterogeneous nature of the coalition, with a traditional right-wing party and a new “techno-populist party”, as the FSM has been defined in academic literature; b) the pivotal role played by the European Union legal and political framework, which emerged as a constitutional feature to be safeguarded.
With regard to the first issue, the Italian situation is characterized by a sort of contradiction, the unconventional alliance between populism and technocracy, between anti-establishment and establishment parties; emblematic of this inherent contradiction is that, despite the populist claim, the prime minister is a non-partisan professor of civil law. This feature makes the Italian political scenario quite different from the right-wing populism spreading around Eastern-Europe and threatening the basic principles of constitutional law. And it appears even different from other experiences of “left-wing populism”, like those of Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, since the 5 Star movement rejected the traditional right-left dichotomy.
And here we see the second feature which makes Italy quite an exception: the relevance of the EU integration project within the Italian constitutional landscape.
Indeed, the Euro-sceptic attitude of both the government parties was deeply diminished by the critical intervention by President Mattarella in the so called “Savona Affair”, in which the president vetoed the appointment of Prof. Savona as Minister of Economy and Finance due to Savona’s criticisms , expressed in the past, concerning the monetary Union, with a particular emphasis on his proposal to abandon the Euro.
The details of the case will be examined in this Symposium in the contribution by Prof. Torre, and they have already been discussed (see Tega and Massa), but it is important to note that the relevance of the European dimension and the intertwined nature of national and European political issues clearly emerged in the Savona case. Despite the controversial nature of Mattarella’s behavior under a strictly constitutional point of view (ex Art. 92 Cost), with regard to the discretionary power of the President within the formation of the government, it made clear that the commitment to the European integration project represents a fundamental issue for the Italian constitutional dimension.
In other words the Italian constitutional architecture, differently for other constitutional experiences, seemed to provide in this specific case a system of safeguards in order to mitigate the enactment of populist and anti-European claims, renewing its commitment, though not exempt from criticism, to the EU integration project.
The government in its first political steps, despite showing a confrontational attitude toward the EU and other Member States, did not put in question the Italian participation to the EU per se, but rather prompted a confrontation at the EU level regarding the management of migration policies, asking for a more cooperative attitude at the European level and among member states.
The Italian case can be considered an anomaly within the populism wave, “the brightest side of populism” or even a weaker form of it, compared to the case of authoritarian regimes in Hungary and Poland, where the constitutional order has been broken and subverted.
Given the different issues at stake, both constitutional and political, we have asked Italian legal scholars to discuss from different perspectives the Italian scenario and the challenges ahead for the Italian constitutional system.
The symposium will feature contributions from three Italian scholars: 1) Francesco Clementi (University of Perugia); 2) Alessandro Torre (University of Bari); and 3) Giuseppe Martinico (Sant’Anna School of Advance Studies), which will be published in the days ahead.
We are grateful to each of them for their contributions to this special symposium.
Suggested Citation: Antonia Baraggia, Introduction to I-CONnect Symposium–The Aftermath of the Italian General Election of March 4, 2018: Political and Constitutional Issues, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, August 14, 2018, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2018/08/introduction-to-i-connect-symposium-the-aftermath-of-the-italian-general-election-of-march-4-2018-political-and-constitutional-issues
 J-W- Müller, Italy: The Bright Side of Populism?, available at https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/06/08/italy-the-bright-side-of-populism/.
 C. J. Bickerton, C. Invernizzi Accetti, ‘Techno-populism’ as a new party family: the case of the Five Star Movement and Podemos, Contemporary Italian Politics, 10:2, 132-150, 2018.
 D Tega, M Massa, Why the Italian President’s Decision was Legitimate, VerfBlog, 2018/5/28, https://verfassungsblog.de/why-the-italian-presidents-decision-was-legitimate/
 J-W- Müller, Italy: The Bright Side of Populism?, cit.