Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

I-CONnect Symposium–The Aftermath of the Italian General Election of March 4, 2018–Populism Versus Constitutionalism 101: What Can We Learn from the Italian Scenario?

[Editor’s Note: This is the final Part in our symposium on the Italian General Election of March 4, 2018. The Introduction to the symposium is available here, Part II is available here and Part III is available here. The symposium is convened by Antonia Baraggia.]

Giuseppe Martinico, Associate Professor of Comparative Public Law at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pisa

Populism is on the rise in Europe, and Italy participates in this trend, having recently experienced an apparent victory of two political forces generally labelled as populist by scholars and the media. But can we really define “Lega” and the Five Star Movement as populist movements? And what does the Italian scenario suggest about the relationship between populism and constitutionalism?

Concerning the first question, the leader of “Lega” – Salvini – in fact defined himself as “proudly populist” on many occasions, and Meloni (the leader of “Fratelli d’Italia”, one of the forces originally allied with Lega and Forza Italia) openly defined Orbán as a political role model. During the electoral campaign the Five Star Movement (which later announced a political deal with “Lega”) threatened to abolish the prohibition of the imperative mandate. Another frequent target of populists in Italy is the European Union, depicted as major threat to national sovereignty. Indeed, the thorny issue of the eurozone membership has accompanied the alliance between Lega and the Five Star Movement from the beginning, and although the possibility of exit from the eurozone was  later denied by both  Di Maio and Salvini, more recently Savona, currently Minister of European Affairs, has again referred to this option.

This situation has induced Italian constitutional lawyers to reflect upon the relationship between populism and constitutionalism. Indeed, defining constitutionalism and populism as antithetical concepts would not be accurate. As Corrias pointed out, even populism “contains a (largely implicit) constitutional theory”. Even more recently Fournier defined this relationship by relying on a “parasite analogy”, arguing that: “the relation between populism and constitutional democracy is comparable to a process of parasitism where constitutional democracy would be the host and populism the parasite”. In fact, one could say that the real aim of populist movements is to alter the axiological hierarchies that characterize constitutional democracies, for instance by presenting democracy (understood as the majority rule) as a kind of “trump card” which should prevail over other constitutional values.

In this sense, as Fournier recalled, “Populist rhetoric argues that the rule-of-law is used for a specific agenda by non-elected (and so non-representative) bodies. Populism turns the original equilibrium of constitutional democracy into a balance of power in which the majority no longer sits alongside the rule of law, but rather is constrained by it.” It does so by presenting the majority as the exclusive source of legal and political truth and by neglecting the counter-majoritarian flavor of constitutionalism. However, majority is not a neutral or easy concept; on the contrary, it is an artificial one which can be constructed through political and legal decisions, by excluding or including someone from the right to vote, for instance. Thus, procedural caveats are important, as they contribute towards ensuring the preservation of that core of untouchable values that is up to constitutionalism to defend.

It is possible to find some of these elements in the Italian context as well. Consider the issue of the already mentioned prohibition of the imperative mandate and the emphasis over the idea of giving power back to the people. The slogan “Italians first” has characterized the entire campaign of “Lega” and clearly echoes Trump’s rhetoric. More recently Salvini, currently Minister of the Interior, has also announced he is  ready to use the EU veto to lift Russian sanctions, and his declarations echoed those of US President Trump regarding  the return of Russia to the G8. By contrast, the approach of the Five Star Movement is profoundly based on an anti –élite approach and characterized by a sort of moral claim of representation. The combination of these factors immediately brings to mind the way in which Müller portrayed populisms. More generally, “identity politics”, “politics of immediacy” and “politics of announcements” seem to be at the heart of these first weeks of government, and in this Salvini has definitely taken the lead so far, surpassing both President Conte and the other Deputy Prime Minister Di Maio. Salvini’s populism  has sadly found its main focus in the tragic field of migration policies.

As Pinelli wrote “Populism…claims immediate responses to the ‘people’s will’, denying the good reasons of a longer time perspective of politics”. The obsession of populist movements with the “politics of immediacy” inevitably results in questioning many of the instruments of representative democracy. This explains why one of the pillars of many constitutional democracies, namely the prohibition of the imperative mandate, has been questioned by populists. Indeed, populists tend to depict Parliaments as one of the fora of those élite that are frequently portrayed as detached from the real needs of the people. This relates to  another feature of populism: as  political scientists have pointed out, populism does not accept the compromise which representative democracy is based on. It also explains the emphasis over instruments of direct and participatory democracy portrayed as a form of appeal to the people. The debate surrounding the prohibition of the imperative mandate (expressly established by art. 67 of the Italian Constitution) is directly linked to another feature of this government, namely the idea according to which representatives must immediately respond to the claims of the people with almost no autonomy in performing their public function, as they were bound by a specific contract. This risks reducing representation to a private law scheme and this narrative is also confirmed in the idea of a “government contract” signed between the Five Star Movement and Lega. The idea itself of a contract is not entirely new, since  Berlusconi also presented and signed the famous “contract with the Italians” during a very famous talk show (“Porta a Porta”) on May 8, 2001.  This demonstrates that these forms of populism did not emerge completely out of the blue. In addition, the very idea of the “contract” – according to the populist rhetoric of the Five Star Movement- implies the necessity to overcome the prohibition of the imperative mandate or at least that to mitigate it by insisting on party discipline or pecuniary sanctions. All this seems to confirm that the current political phase is the direct offspring of long standing issues that have been characterizing the Italian scenario for a while.

Suggested Citation: Giuseppe Martinico, I-CONnect Symposium–The Aftermath of the Italian General Election of March 4, 2018–Populism versus Constitutionalism 101: What Can We Learn from the Italian Scenario?, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, August 17, 2018, at:


One response to “I-CONnect Symposium–The Aftermath of the Italian General Election of March 4, 2018–Populism Versus Constitutionalism 101: What Can We Learn from the Italian Scenario?”

  1. […] the claims of the people with almost no autonomy in performing their public function. As suggested elsewhere, this runs the risk of reducing representation to a private law scheme and this narrative is also […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *