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Book Review: Eleonora Bottini on “Italian Populism and Constitutional Law. Strategies, Conflicts and Dilemmas” (Giacomo Delledonne, Giuseppe Martinico, Matteo Monti, Fabio Pacini, eds.)

[Editor’s Note: In this installment of I•CONnect’s Book Review Series, Eleonora Bottini reviews Giacomo Delledonne, Giuseppe Martinico, Matteo Monti, Fabio Pacini’s book on “Italian Populism and Constitutional Law. Strategies, Conflicts and Dilemmas” (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2020).]

Eleonora Bottini, Professor of Public Law, University of Caen Normandy (France)

In the weeks following the rise to power of the anti-populist leader par excellence Mario Draghi[1] as Prime Minister of Italy, it is particularly interesting to focus on the recently published book Italian Populism and Constitutional Law. This collection of essays edited by Giacomo Delledonne, Giuseppe Martinico, Matteo Monti and Fabio Pacini raises fundamental questions about the relationship between populism and constitutional law, one of the most debated questions in comparative constitutional studies of the last decade.

There are many aspects of this important book that deserve our attention. But first of all, when dealing with a case study analyzed by constitutional scholars about a transnational topic, one preliminary question arises: why Italy? Is Italian populism specific or is it just an example of a global phenomenon? After being tempted initially to treat populism as a worldwide challenge to liberal democracy (Fournier 2019), encouraged by an unprecedented craze for the concept by lawyers and political scientists, it appears that “law in context” is the best approach to really understand the impact of populist discourses on constitutionalism, which is the chosen approach of this book.

Putting aside for a moment the complex question of the definition of populism, Italy possesses a specific, though not unique, characteristic, having experienced populism-in-power (Faraguna, p. 98). As explained in the Introduction by the editors, Italy was the first European country to ‘become an experiment of a self-styled populist coalition government’ (p. 2) after the elections of 2018. The “Yellow-Green Government” composed by the far-right nationalist party The League and the apolitical Five Stars Movement is the starting point of the project and is analyzed in detail (Delledonne, chapter 7). However, the experience of the short-lasting Government of 2018-2019 is not the only populist experience of Italian history: populism has been a part of Republican Italy since the 1990s, even though its identification depends on the retained definition for populism. The anti-party sentiment created by the political scandal of Tangentopoli of 1992-1994 is frequently referred to in the book as the root of the development of populism during the Second Italian Republic. Enrico Letta’s approach to constitutional amendments (Faraguna, p. 112) or that of Matteo Renzi (Blokker, chapter 2) are also considered populist (or strikingly similar to), showing that even political actors who are not normally identified as populist can act as such, or take over some of the populist rhetoric or methodology at times. However, The League and the Five Stars Movement are indeed the two main populist political parties studied in the book, in addition to the numerous mentions of Silvio Berlusconi and his ‘anti-pluralist – populistic – rhetoric’ (Fasone, p. 43).

The book examines the fundamental question of the relationship between populism and constitutionalism: are they inevitably related to one another or are they absolutely opposed? Is populist constitutionalism an oxymoron – much as illiberal democracy from certain points of view (Halmai 2019; Drinóczi and Bień-Kacala 2018) – or is it one of the possible forms of constitutionalism? The case of Italy provides some answers, and is for this reason an informative and precious tool for comparatists, especially because the authors decided to publish in English[2]. The contributors do not necessarily give the same answer to this question, but they all clarify one of the aspects of Italian constitutionalism, as challenged by populist claims and policies. Being one of the most controversial concepts of recent legal debate, populism can hardly be defined as an abstract notion. Many studies have explained how populist movements do not refer to the same political content, nor the same discourses, at different times of history and in different parts of the world. That is why the most interesting way of studying populism is the one adopted by the editors of Italian Populism: exploring most possible aspects of one case.

Of course, even when focusing on the modern political history of one country, the outcomes of the research might not be the same. The profound scholarly disagreement on the definition of populism, which in addition is not limited to the legal field but concern sociologists, political scientists and historians, is the main difficulty recalled in the incipit of every chapter of the book. If Paul Blokker envisages democracy as a dualistic regime of which constitutionalism and populism are equally fundamental aspects (p. 13), Faraguna opts for a different position underlining the ‘contrast between populism and post-World War II constitutionalism’ (p. 101) and considers a populist constitutionalism an oxymoron (p. 105). Overall, and except for the opening essay by Blokker, the discrepancies and irreconcilable tensions between populist phenomena and the main values of Italian constitutionalism appear to be the leitmotiv of the book[3]. The fundamental incompatibility of populist discourses and constitutionalist values is visible in both parts of the book, when analyzing Italian democratic institutions (Part I) or the content of specific policies (Part II). For example, the role of Parliament is marginalized by the emergence of populist anti-establishment parties (Fasone, chapter 3) and the function of the Executive is manipulated by those same parties (Delledonne, chapter 7); the multiplication of fake news is incompatible with the right to be informed (Monti, chapter 9); and the use of an Internet platform by the Five Stars Movement to make political decisions for Parliament goes against the prohibition of binding mandates (article 67 of the Italian Constitution, see Bassini, chapter 10).

The analyses of the book reveal the possible existence of various degrees of populism: ‘pure populism’[4] as the absolute refusal of all main values associated with constitutionalism and other episodic forms of populist rhetoric, visible in approaches to specific situations, for example constitutional amendments (Blokker, Faraguna) or normative migration policies (Penasa, chapter 13). The variety of degrees of populism encourages a ‘non-Manichean attitude towards the populist-constitutionalism relationship’ (Penasa, p. 272)[5].

In this very complete overview of Italian populisms, referendums and constitutional amendments hold an important place. Both are related to common characteristics of populist discourses: the constant call for a more direct participation of the people for the former (Martinico, Bassini) and the absence of separation between constitutional and legislative politics for the latter (Blokker, Faraguna). Sometimes those two elements can be found together: article 138 of the Constitution allows some political actors to require a referendum on a constitutional amendment, in case the proposed amendment does not reach a super majority in both houses of Parliament. Even if this constitutional mechanism seems to have been designed for minorities (Faraguna, p. 110), it was used three times by parties in government, transforming the constitutional referendum into a plebiscite, as the example of Renzi easily shows (his job was put on the line and the failure of the referendum of December 4th 2016 led to his resignation).

The only possibly missing chapter would have been about the role of the Constitutional Court with regards to populist policies. As noted in the book, the Italian Court has held an increasingly important role in rationalizing referendums (Martinico, p. 89); it is also one of the counter-majoritarian bodies that can be activated ‘as antibodies’ (Penasa, p. 273) when populist strategies manage to dictate policies in sensitive domains, such as migration or the budget (Boggero, chapter 8). In the debate about constitutionalism and populism, courts have had opposing places: they are described as being populist themselves (Harel 2017) or as the ‘last bastion’ (p. 156) against populist majorities. The prolific case-law of the Corte costituzionale is certainly a rich terrain of study and may even be the reason for hope, in order to avoid even further democratic backsliding in Italy.

[1] Mario Draghi has been sworn in as President of the Council of Ministers (the equivalent of Prime Minister in Italy) on February 13th 2021.

[2] Another recent book was published recently on a similar topic: P. Blokker, M. Anselmi (eds), Multiple Populisms: Italy as democracy’s mirror, Routledge 2019.

[3] On this point, I disagree with the book review by G. Halmai, Zeitschrift für öffentliches Recht 75, 1005–1011 (2020).

[4] J.-W. Müller, « Populism and constitutionalism », in The Oxford Handbook of populism, Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 590-607.

[5] Penasa speaks about a “sustainable level of populist policies within a constitutional legal order” (p. 257).

Suggested Citation: Eleonora Bottini, Review of “Italian Populism and Constitutional Law. Strategies, Conflicts and Dilemmas”  (Giacomo Delledonne, Giuseppe Martinico, Matteo Monti, Fabio Pacini, eds.), Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Apr. 24, 2021, at:

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Published on April 24, 2021
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