Monday, 5 June 2017

Populists are not taking over Europe, but neither are they on the way out

Populists must be taken seriously as builders of organisations, shapers of political agendas and, increasingly, as parties in power - argues Daniele Albertazzi.**

The political developments of the last year or so have inspired a flurry of articles and analyses on the future of populism in Europe. However, too often the term “populism” is deployed in inconsistent, loose and undefined ways; moreover, the commentary tends to be characterised by unfounded claims about, either the populists’ alleged successes, or indeed their impending demise.

Populism is not the attempt to put forward “popular” proposals, nor is it about appealing to emotions during campaigns, or else every politician should by default be called a “populist” and the term would become useless. Moreover, the essence of populism is not necessarily overpromising. Whether we conceive of populism as a “thin”, simplistic ideology attaching itself to other ideologies (for instance, socialism and nationalism), or “just” a rhetorical style, its core argument is that the people, depicted as virtuous and homogeneous, are always pitted against a set of elites, who are depriving the people of everything they own - from their material wealth to their very identity. In other words, the core of populism is its anti-establishment rhetoric and anti-elitism.

Following the events leading to Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the USA, it may be understandable to find so many commentators buying into a narrative whereby Europe would be on the verge of being “swept” by a populist tide. This narrative often reveals the Anglo-centric perspective of its proponents, as it is predicated on an understanding of political competition whereby only two/three actors can have a go at forming the government, usually on their own. But since the majority of European electoral systems have strong elements of proportionality, and in several of them (such as, for instance France, Germany, Belgium and, more recently, also the Netherlands) mainstream parties would find it very difficult to engage in forms of collaboration with their populist competitors, the picture on our continent seems in fact more nuanced. This, however, does not mean, as some commentators have concluded after Macron’s victory in the French Presidential election, that populism must now have “peaked”, let alone that it is on the way out. Assertions of this kind are not substantiated by the electoral data, nor indeed by a simple consideration of how often populists have been included in governing coalitions in recent years.

As far as elections are concerned, European populist parties have quite simply seen their vote share increase steadily and consistently since the 1970s. Even the recent and much discussed “defeats” that populists are alleged to have suffered in the Netherlands, France and Austria were very honourable indeed. Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom increased its tally of seats, the Austrian Norbert Gerwald Hofer came very close to being elected President of his country with 46 per cent of the vote, and Marine Le Pen attracted a much higher vote share than her father ever did when attempting to capture the French Presidency in the past.

As for populists accessing governments, all the signs are that they have a realistic hope to go on being included in government coalitions in several countries in the future.This has happened on numerous occasions in the recent past, and shrinking support for moderate parties militates in favour of populists remaining “coalitionable”.

Indeed, in countries as diverse as Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, Finland, Norway, Hungary, Poland, and others, this has happened fairly recently - not to mention nations such as Denmark and again, the Netherlands, in which populists have provided essential external support to executives. If this were not enough, in many European countries it is the populist parties that are now the most seasoned and durable parties of all, sometimes benefiting from very rooted and efficient organisations. In other words, they are most certainly not “new” challengers – quite the opposite in fact.

The time has therefore come to take populists seriously as builders of organizations, shapers of political agendas and, increasingly, as parties in power. Their success may be far from inevitable, but they are definitely here to stay.

**this blog was originally published on the University of Birmingham website.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

IPSG is the PSA Specialist Group of the Year!

The PSA has awarded to us the coveted Specialist Group of the Year prize 2017!

In its letter to the group's convenors, the PSA spoke highly of our activism and the high quality of the work that we do over the year.
Prof. Matt Flinders (PSA Chair) awards the prize to IPSG conveners 
It recognised that we have been "working with other specialist groups, putting on international conferences, including some great speakers and guests, whilst also promoting diversity and supporting early career academics". 

We are delighted that the work of our members has led us to gain this recognition from the PSA and aim to continue doing our best to promote the study of Italian politics in comparative perspective. 
We are committed to continue to organise international events, collaborate with other specialist groups and, more generally, play an active role in the promotion of the study of politics. 
We remain particularly interested in welcoming PhD students and young researchers to our group and provide them opportunities to organise/participate in events with us so as to acquire experience and develop networks. 

Join us at this most exciting time for our group by contacting our membership officer Dario Quattromani, or simply log into the PSA website, then click on this link, and hit the 'request group membership' button! 

Jim Newell (IPSG Chair and founder), Arianna Giovannini & Daniele Albertazzi (IPSG Convenors), Laura Polverari (IPSG Secretary)

Sunday, 2 April 2017

IPSG at PSA Annual Conference, Glasgow (10-12 April 2017)

The Italian Politics Specialist Group has organised a wide number of panels at this year's PSA conference focussing on timely issues, with contributions from international academics: 

The full conference programme is available at this link, and on the PSA website.

The IPSG will hold its Annual Business Meeting on Tuesday 11 April (12:30-13:30, Conference Room 8). We encourage anyone interested in Italian and comparative politics to attend the meeting: this will be an excellent opportunity to get to know the IPSG executive, and familiarise with the wide range of activities that we are planning for 2017 and beyond. Existing, new and perspective members are welcome! 

We look forward to seeing you in Glasgow!

PSA 67th Annual International Conference

10 – 12 April 2017, Technology & Innovation Centre, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

Politics in Interesting Times

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Great success for our conference in Turin!

The PSA Italian Politics Specialist group held its annual conference, entitled European Democracy Under Stress, at the University of Turin (Italy) on the 13th and 14th of January 2017. The event was organised in collaboration with the Department of Cultures, Politics and Society (DCPS) at the University of Turin, the PSA Anti-politics Specialist Group and the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences at the Universidade Nova De Lisboa, with the support of the PSA Pushing the Boundaries Scheme.

Simona Piattoni (Professor of Politics, University of Trento and President of the Italian Political Studies Association) opened the conference with a compelling keynote entitled ‘Revisiting democratic principles in times of heightened interconnectedness’.  
Prof. Franca Roncarolo (Head of DCPS, University of Turin), Prof. Simona Piattoni (University of Trento, SISP President), Dr Arianna Giovannini (IPSG Co-convenor), Dr Matt Wood (APSG Convenor)

Throughout the two days, scholars from across Europe presented their research, and the conference provided a forum for debating the complex and multiple pressures currently faced by European democracies. It also hosted a workshop on experiments of deliberative democracy in Turin, delivered by leading experts at DCPS.

The event closed with a roundtable discussion with Alfio Mastropaolo (Professor of Politics, University of Turin), Daniele Albertazzi (Senior Lecturer in European Politics, University of Birmingham) and Anna Masera (Editor-in-chief of the Italian daily La Stampa and director of the Master in Journalism, University of Turin) – which focused on lessons from comparative analysis, and helped to set an agenda for future research.

Dr Matt Wood, Prof. Alfio Mastropaolo, Dr Daniele Albertazzi, Dr Anna Masera

The conference was a great success: it attracted a large audience and it offered the opportunity both to develop international research networks and to promote the work of the PSA abroad. The organisers are planning a series of blogs drawing on the papers presented in Turin, and they are preparing a proposal for a special issue. They have also set the foundations for creating an institutional link between the PSA and the Italian Political Studies Association.

Luigi Einaudi Campus, University of Turin

Luigi Einaudi Campus, University of Turin

Conference Dinner

Saturday, 14 January 2017

"European Democracy Under Stress" - Conference Programme

The Italian Politics Specialist Group is delighted to open the registration for its annual conference:



13th-14th January 2017- Department of Cultures, Politics and Society (DCPS), University of Turin

A conference organised by the Political Studies Association’s Italian Politics and Anti-politics Specialist Groups, with the support of the PSA Pushing the Boundaries Scheme, and the Faculdade de Ciencias Sociais e Humanas, Universidade Nova De Lisboa

European democracies are under pressure. The rise of alternative left and right political parties and new populist parties, discontent with traditional ‘slow’ political processes and growing preferences among citizens for internet and social media-driven movements and the increasing success of ‘antipolitics’ rhetoric have seen politicians across European liberal democracies struggle to retain their relevance in an increasingly globalised, fast-paced social and economic world. Moreover, European leaders are facing increasing difficulties to deal with a growing confluence of crises, including an unprecedented influx of refugees, discontent at harsh austerity measures imposed on EU member states, and more broadly dissatisfaction with the European integration project. This is clearly manifested in the growth of euro-sceptic parties and anti-EU feelings even in traditionally ‘Europhile’ countries, and in the recent ‘Brexit’ referendum in the UK. The dynamics and forms of these pressures are multidimensional and compound: they have different roots and have taken different paths across Europe, and yet they converge in challenging political structures and the very institution of democracy.

The aim of this conference is to offer a distinctive approach in capturing such complexity, inviting contributions from scholars across Europe that will: reflect on the causes, symptoms, effects, and long-term consequences of the so-called ‘democratic crisis’; develop explicitly comparative insights into the European ‘democratic crisis’, within and between countries as well as at the transnational ‘European’ level; offer an opportunity to ‘redefine’, in the light of current changes and challenges, the key concepts (e.g. anti-politics, politicisation/de-politicisation, populism, political participation, and the very idea of ‘democracy’) underpinning the debate on ‘democratic crisis’.

The conference will open with a keynote address by Simona Piattoni (Professor of Politics at the University of Trento, and President of SISP, the Italian Political Science Society), entitled 'Revisiting democratic principles in times of heightened interconnectedness'.
The event will include panels with papers from international scholars, as well as a workshop on experiments of deliberative democracy in Turin (‘A deliberative experience: two editions of the Turin Deliberative Budget. Promises and pitfalls from different democratic perspectives'), delivered by Stefania Ravazzi and Gianfraco Pomatto (members of the Department of Cultures, Politics and Society at the University of Turin).
The conference will close with a roundtable entitled 'European Democracy Under Stress. Lessons from comparative analysis'.
Panellist include Alfio Mastropaolo (Professor of Political Science, University of Turin), Daniele Albertazzi (Senior Lecturer in European Politics, University of Birmingham) and Anna Masera (Journalist, editor-in-chief and public-editor, La Stampa; director of the Master in Journalism, University of Turin).

The full conference programme is available at this link and below.

The conference is free of charge but attendees must register at this link. Registration will be open until Friday 6 January 2017.

If you have any query about the conference, please do not hesitate to contact the organisers.

Friday, 13 January 2017

'Trumpismo': America's new era of Berlusconismo?

The rise of Trump has brought to light uncanny similarities with the rise of Berlusconi in Italy. This has not gone un-noticed. The sometimes troubling likeness has brought Berlusconi back into the limelight, along with a renewed look at the affects of Berlusconi's policies on the Italian economy.

Radio Open Source has done a profile on 'Trumpismo' as it relates to 'Berlusconismo,' calling their segment: "Silvio Berlosconi: The Godfather of Trumpismo"

A panel of journalists weigh in on the issue, including Italian/American journalists Sylvia Poggioli and Alexander Stille; Italian journalist and Berlusconi critic, Sabina Guzzanti; and longtime financial and political journalist and former editor of The Economist, Bill Emmot.

Listen to our own Dr Daniele Albertazzi, senior lecturer of European Politics at the University of Birmingham as he discusses the 20-year era of Berlusconi, how the left is at a loss for words, and how a succession of Italian leaders have failed to pull the country together.

For the full story, click here.

Monday, 19 December 2016

'Referendum rocks Rome'

In the latest episode of the University of Birmingham's Political World View, Daniele Albertazzi speaks with Adam Quinn about Italy's referendum outcome. They discuss what it means for Italy's current state of politics and what it means for Europe.

Was the 'no' vote similar to the Brexit outcome?

Why did Renzi stake his career on this vote?

Is Italy pro-Europe or more Euro skeptic?

Is the Five Star Movement really run by a comedian?

Learn this and more from this informative episode:

Monday, 5 December 2016

IPSG Chair Prof. Jim Newell analyses the Italian Referendum results on the Independent:

"The NO vote in the Italian referendum had nothing to do with populism and everything to do with Matteo Renzi.
The NO side mobilised people on the left and right; populists and anti-populists; members of the liberal elite and those in less exalted circumstances"

The full article is available at this link.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Who’s afraid of the Em Five Es?

Ahead of Sunday's referendum, Prof. Jim Newell (IPSG Chair) reflects on the role and impact of the Five Star Movement in the post-vote scenario.

Who’s afraid of the Em Five Es?

It is widely believed that if Sunday’s referendum on constitutional reform in Italy is not passed, then comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five-star Movement (M5s) could cause considerable political, not to say economic, upset. The belief arises from the fact that the M5s wants a referendum on Italy’s membership of the Euro. And if Italy were to leave the Euro, it is suggested, then the EU itself would be placed in danger.

It is thought that if the No side loses then Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi will resign. A period of political uncertainty and turmoil will, so one story goes, put wind in the Movement’s sails, and fresh elections will see an M5s victory. Elections have to be held no later than early 2018.

But others have suggested an alternative, even more lurid scenario. According to this, Renzi wins. Fresh elections are held on the basis of the new electoral law that is linked to the constitutional reform. This puts the M5s in an even stronger position. For the law assigns 55% of the seats to the winning list provided it achieves at least 40%. If it doesn’t, then there is a run-off between the two most-voted lists, with 55% of the seats going to the winner at that stage. So according to this scenario, the M5s wins an overall majority. It is able to govern alone, without any need for a coalition. This causes even greater havoc by making an exit from the euro even more likely.
Neither scenario is at all plausible. To see this, consider first of all who the Grillini are.
The Five-star Movement was started in 2009 by Grillo and the web strategist, Gianroberto Casaleggio. He had the intuition that the Internet could be used as the basis for a new kind of party, one without organisation, money, ideology or headquarters. This encouraged Grillo to use his blog and the social networking site,, to bring people together to campaign on local issues and then field candidates for elections. So the Movement drew initial strength from the twin ideas of a new form of direct democracy and popular disgust with the political elites. This meant that it drew support from across the political spectrum. Therefore, its policies have always been an eclectic mix of the anti-establishment, environmentalist, anti-globalist and Eurosceptic. At the 2013 general election it came from nowhere to become the second most-voted party. Through ups and downs, its poll ratings have stood at around 30% ever since.

Its current ratings put it on 29.9%, the centre left Democratic Party (PD) on 31% and the centre-right parties on 28.3%. It does not seem to have suffered from outcries surrounding a number of controversial appointments by its recently elected mayor of Rome. Or allegations that activists have been involved in falsifying signatures on the nomination papers of candidates for elections in Bologna and Palermo. These incidents seem to fly in the face of its claim to stand for a new, more honest politics. But people vote for the M5s simply because it represents something different from a political class in whom vast swathes have virtually no confidence.
Since it draws support from all parts of the political spectrum, the fear is that in a run-off ballot it would sweep the board. For it would inevitably attract votes from two sources: its own supporters and those opposed to whichever of the parties, the PD or the centre right, it found itself up against.

But the electoral law might not survive in its current form. If Renzi loses, then the electoral law will have to be revised and the prospect of an M5s majority government will retreat accordingly. For the law’s operability depends on the constitutional reforms being passed and it is opposed by powerful groups from across the political spectrum. But even if Renzi wins, the law might still not survive in its current form. On 21 September, Renzi was forced to bow to pressure to support a parliamentary motion declaring a willingness to revisit it. Moreover, the law has been challenged before the Constitutional Court which is expected to deliver its verdict shortly after the referendum.

The profile of M5s activists and supporters casts doubt on whether it would be able to govern effectively. A vote for the M5s is a straightforward protest vote. Otherwise its activists and supporters are divided across the whole range of issues separating left and right. It is doubtful that such a party can remain cohesive when faced with the pressures of governing. With responsibility for making choices that can only benefit some while hurting others.

And its experience both in Parliament and in local government confirms that protest parties railing against ‘the system’ are as likely to find themselves being absorbed by it as they are to transform it once they experience the pressures of office. To become a party just like all the others. For example, Italian parliamentarians are notorious for jumping from one group to another during the course of a legislature. Currently, no fewer than 154 (or 24%) of the members of the Chamber of Deputies belong to a different group to the one they were a member of at the start of the legislature. Not surprisingly, then, the M5s now has 18 (or 17%) fewer members than the 109 Deputies it elected in 2013.

Many of the defectors have left because they came into conflict with pressures to behave as mere party delegates – pressures created by the new ideology of direct, ‘bottom-up’, democracy espoused by Grillo. And ironically, he has sought to impose this discipline from the top down – by the threat to withdraw from potential and actual rebels all entitlements to use the Movement’s brand, of which he is the exclusive owner.

So even if the M5s found itself in office after an election some time in 2017 or 2018, it would find itself uniquely badly placed to withstand the enormous threats to its unity that would derive from the market pressures, including capital flight and economic turmoil, its promise of a euro referendum would presumably bring.

And even if it were able to withstand such pressures, it might then find it difficult, if not impossible to hold such a referendum in the first place. For one thing, the Constitution prohibits the holding of referenda on laws authorising the ratification of international treaties, and the jurisprudence that has developed over the years has extended the prohibition to the laws that give effect to such treaties.

So in order to hold a euro-membership referendum it would probably first be necessary to secure a revision of the Constitution, and for that to be possible, it would be necessary to win two positive votes in each chamber of Parliament at intervals of not less than three months. With the constitutional reforms being proposed by Renzi, the obstacles in the way of achieving this might be greater than they would be currently. For hitherto, or at least until the change in the electoral law in 2005, the two bodies have tended to have very similar if not identical political majorities. With the changes being proposed by Renzi, these majorities would more than likely diverge.

But there is more. The support of less than two thirds of the members of each chamber in the second vote would make it possible for a fifth of the members of each chamber, or 500,000 electors or five regional councils to subject the proposed constitutional amendment to a confirmatory referendum.

So there might have to be two referenda before an exit from the euro could take place. And then, of course, the referenda would have to be won. In order to achieve that, the M5s would have to overcome their current uncertainty about what they would replace euro membership with. And they would have to find a way of persuading the 67% of respondents who currently say they favour continued membership.

Of course we live in rapidly changing times. But if forced to place a bet on it, I would put my money on there not being a euro exit any time soon – or at least not one engineered by the M5s.

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Italian Referendum: What should we expect after Sunday?

Ahead of Sunday's Referendum on Constitutional Reform, James L. Newell (IPSG Chair and Professor of Politics at the University of Salford) reflects on the crucial points of the reform, and future scenarios:

The Italian Referendum: What should we expect after Sunday?

James L. Newell
This coming Sunday, Italians go to the polls in a constitutional referendum. This has been widely dubbed as offering the stage for a third ‘popular revolt’ against the establishment following Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right-wing populist Northern League, on receiving the news of Trump’s election was heard to exclaim: “Now its our turn!”
And the potential consequences of the referendum have often been painted in lurid colours with suggestions that it could bring the populist Five-star Movement (M5S) to power. The party has demanded a referendum on Italy’s membership of the euro. This could herald the break-up of the EU, it is said. On the left, it is pointed out that the proposed changes to the Constitution are massive. These, it is said, could lead to a reduction of political accountability and checks and balances that put in doubt Italy’s very status as a constitutional democracy.
The reality is much more prosaic and here’s why.
For one thing, the referendum won’t be a third revolt against ‘the establishment’ for the simple reason that it is very difficult to know who ‘the establishment’ is in this case. On the one hand, the reforms are being championed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) and the moderate parties of the centre. On the other hand, they are being opposed by the parties of the centre right including Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Lined up against the reforms are also a minority in the PD, the parties of the left and the populist M5S under former comedian Beppo Grillo. So is ‘the establishment’ Renzi, who is pushing for the reforms as part of the promise, which brought him to power, to do away with vested interests? Or is it the populist Berlusconi and his even-more-populist bed-fellow, Grillo, who are defending the constitutional status quo?

So support for, and opposition to the reforms cross-cut the usual political divides. They also cross-cut the usual social divides. The proportions lined up on either side, do not differ much whether we are talking about the so-called ‘liberal elite’ of the well-educated in high-status occupations – or those in more modest circumstances.

And what of the reforms themselves? The two most high-profile proposals are, first, a change to the constitutional status of the Senate. This is to be stripped of its equal law-making powers with the Chamber of Deputies and turned into a revising chamber. And it is to be indirectly elected from among regional councillors and mayors. This, it is said, will improve the speed and efficiency of policy making by putting a stop to the endless ‘ping-pong’ of bills between Chamber and Senate until they can agree on identically worded texts.
The truth is that the speed of law-making in Italy compares favourably with other countries. Problems only arise when the two bodies have different political majorities as happened due to the electoral law that was in force between 2005 and 2014.
And the reforms may bring no improvement because they replace the existing, identical powers, with a range of legislative procedures depending on the type of bill. Combine that with the differences in the ways members of the Chamber and the Senate are to be selected and you get the following. The two bodies may express different political majorities much of the time. So lack of clarity about what legislative procedure is to be used, when, may encourage Senators to use this as a form of filibustering and lead to much time-wasting litigation before the Constitutional Court.
Second, linked to the reforms is a change in the electoral law, which will give a majority bonus of 55% of the seats in the Chamber to the list that receives at least 40% of the votes. If no list achieves this, there will be a run-off ballot between the two most voted lists. The winner at this round will get the majority bonus; the remaining seats will be distributed among the losers. This, it is said, will increase the likelihood that a single party ends up with an overall majority. Thereby it will increase the power of the executive together with government stability. But there is nothing to stop parties fielding candidates as part of a single list with others – and then reclaiming their autonomy, in Parliament, after the election. Such has happened at every election in recent years. Parties know that they can unite with potential allies at election time and then go their separate ways afterwards simply by blackmailing them: “I might not be able to win, but by running independently, I can make sure you lose!”
In any case, executive stability and the efficiency of law-making are not the main problems. Italy’s problems lie not at the point at which legislation is made but at the points where it is implemented – in inefficiencies in the public administration and the judicial system, and in adequacies in adherence to rule-of-law principles.
What, then, of the likely outcome? There is little doubt that it will be close and in that respect comparisons with Brexit and Trump are appropriate. Polls put the No side ahead by about 5% – but many are undecided and the polls do not take account of the choices of Italians resident abroad of which there are about four million: a sizeable chunk of the electorate.
If Renzi wins, then his authority will go up and he might be tempted to capitalise on that through early elections.
But early elections will not be possible before legislation has been put in place to give effect to the way members of the new Senate are to be selected. And there will probably have to be further discussion of the electoral law for the Chamber as well. In September he was forced to agree to a parliamentary motion declaring a willingness to revisit it and it has been challenged before the Constitutional Court.
So the electoral law may not survive in its current form, and even if it does, the outcome of an election in 2017 and 2018 will probably be far less dramatic than is assumed. On current poll ratings, likely winners are the PD or the M5S. The significance one attributes to this depends on how cohesive one judges them to be and this will depend on future political developments. It is an open question whether an M5S that draws support from across the political spectrum and has hitherto been a party of protest, would be able to remain cohesive in face of the pressures of governing. Its experience of governing at the local level suggests doubt is in order. 17% of those the M5S elected to Parliament in 2013 have already defected.

If Renzi loses, then having staked his future on the referendum outcome, he will probably resign. This will probably lead to the appointment of a technocratic government with the specific remit of securing parliamentary approval for a new electoral law, before the holding of fresh elections. I base this prediction on the thought that the legislature has only about fourteen months left to run; that for the parties such a government would represent a positive-sum outcome (none would win at the expense of others); that putting such a government in place would have the advantage of speed: assuming that a resignation on the part of Renzi sends shockwaves around Europe and the markets, President Sergio Matarella will want to resolve the crisis quickly.  
So the day after the referendum result is announced, do not wake up expecting to find the world turned upside down. Whichever way it goes, it will be followed by a period of uncertainty. Here again comparisons with Brexit are appropriate. In the world of politics things are simply much more complex than journalists and politicians too often like to make out.