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A Yale Professor Explains: Joseph LaPalombara Talks Italy’s Elections


Yale Department of Political Science


On development, Italian politics

Explaining for us

Italy’s March 2018 general elections


The Politic: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Across campus, many students have been following the various European elections to track the rather frightening trend toward the extreme right. Could you please briefly summarize for us the results of the Italian parliamentary elections in March and what you think the most likely government will be?

Joseph LaPalombara: Italy has a very complex electoral system that typically does not produce anything like a majority party, so coalitions are necessary. This is what happened on March 4, 2018. Just recently, the president of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, who has a constitutional duty to do this, asked the president of the Senate, Maria Casallati, to ask whether or not there is a possible government that would be center-right, which would the Five Star Movement, the League, and Forza Italia (the Berlusconi party). She just reported this morning [please indicate date], after examining this particular coalition, that a government of this kind is not a possibility. We knew that already. Whether or not there will be a government is complicated, though I think that there will be. I cannot predict what it will look like, but unless two major parties, namely the FSM and the League, can get together on an issue that has bothered them immensely, you will probably have a center left coalition between FSM and the very defeated Democratic Party of the left.

There has been a well-documented increase in extreme right support across Europe, specifically Lega Nord in this most recent Italian election. What defines an extreme right party, and how do you imagine such a party changing policy either as a member of parliament or as a leading coalition party?

There has been a lot of idle talk about populism and populist parties wherever you have elections. The Five Star Movement (FSM) has been described wrongly as a populist party. Some of the rhetoric is clearly populist: pensions, single taxes, what to do about the unemployment level of Italy, especially for youth. The FSM has promised that if it were to come to power, these problems would be corrected. Basically, the pudding is in the policies, and we’re not sure what FSM would do.

My sense is, however, that the Five Star Movement, which got 32 percent of the vote, which is quite impressive given Italian electoral system, will have part of any government. It is led by a young person at the moment, just 32 years, Luigi Di Maio. He was previously elected to parliament in 2003 and was the youngest person in the history of the republic to be elected vice president of the lower Chamber. One way or another, the FSM, which got more votes than any other [party], will have to be a part of the government. Luigi would like to be the Prime Minister and has said that again and again. The head of the League, Matteo Salvini, would like to be Prime Minister himself. The League did well in the north of Italy, but the FSM did immensely well in the south of Italy. From the European Union and United States perspectives, this would be a bad outcome because Salvini is close with Russia’s President Putin and is extremely opposed to the European Union. On both issues, the FSM would be immensely less insistent and much more inclined to accommodate what the European Union and Washington would prefer. The populist rhetoric would be reflected in the policies.

In the U.S., we have a lot of populist rhetoric, but have had a serious of policies that are anything but populist. They were extremely right-wing and meant to serve a very small portion of Americans. They are simply adding up to more inequality in a country that already has too much of it. Italy already has growing inequality as well. I think that the FSM would try to deal with that problem, and it should.

Italy has been at the center of the debate over refugee and migrant rights. How was immigration brought to the forefront of the election, and what parallels, if any, exist between the Italian election and other elections that have focused on immigration, such as the 2016 U.S. presidential election? In your view, beyond the government policies, what are the potential social repercussions of the anti-immigrant sentiment and rhetoric that many political leaders used in the Italian campaign?

Immigrants are obvious and easy political scapegoats both in this country and all over Europe. Europe in comparison [to the U.S.] really has an immigrant problem. One thinks of Assad and the exodus of over four million Syrians looking for homes elsewhere. Many North African migrants have been taking risky trips across the Mediterranean.

Interestingly, Italy has a smaller proportion of its total population who are immigrants, legal or otherwise, than countries like France and Germany. On the other hand, the North African migrants come primarily to Italy because of the Italian coastlines. However, many of these immigrants are not going to stay in Italy anyway. As soon as they can, they will take advantage of the E.U. and move elsewhere. Italy complains that it has not had the degree of help from Brussels that it should have. This is one of the issues that the League has made a major issue in the Italian elections, with Salvini and other members of the League claiming that this is a huge economic problem for Italy. It is a problem for a Europe, and less of a problem for Italy than it is for most other European countries.

The League is more supported in the North. Is immigration a more localized issue or is it felt nationwide?

It is a national issue. It is felt primarily by the cities of Italy that are the major tourist attractions primarily because non-white immigrants are often seen in the central streets marketing handbags, ties, belts, minor things of that nature. Therefore, they are extremely easy to target politically. This is what the League has done in the provinces north of Rome. They are less visible in the South, which is any event is poorer.

It would be a serious mistake to conflate the FSM with anything like an extreme right-wing party or as an extreme populist party, like Orbán in Hungary or the Polish right-wing. The FSM is the Christian democratic [party] resurrecting. The electoral composition of the party consists of more young people. These are the same people who face the highest unemployment rate. Basically, the FSM has a broad appeal in gender, class, and occupation. My guess is that if you were to look carefully at the composition of the FSM and compare it to the composition of the Christian democratic party in another generation, the similarities would be striking.

Just about a year ago, you published an article in which you explore an apparent paradox between political party support and access and social media. Would you please describe this paradox for us and explain how it played out in this most recent election in Italy? Additionally, what effect, if any, did fake news have in the Italian election?

The mass media have had less of an impact in Italy than in the United States by far. My criticism of high-tech and mass social media is that most of the people who have signed up with these media fail to understand something very basic about this industrial area. Namely, that the people who sign up and use the media are in fact the product, not the users. What an organization like Cambridge Analytica did when it purchased information of 87 million people from Facebook—all this information that people willingly provide completely unknown persons with is then sub-aggregated and sold. We are the product in the sense that information about us is being marketed.

We create the misimpression that most of our peers think as we do and share the same values. Therefore, whatever divisions that may already exist in society become immediately apparent in the mass media. If you look at your incoming email, you will rarely receive a piece of email with which you do not agree. If you get a piece of email that angers you, it is because you have received from one of these organizations that thinks as you do, shares your values, and thinks that you and your like-minded peers should be doing something radical if necessary. My sense of it is that the mass media have had two horrendous effects on our and other societies. Namely, they have politically increased the kind of competition and invitation to defending your point of view if necessary with violence. And the other effect of technology is that it makes us lonelier and has made it less necessary to seek human companionship. I don’t think that the political effect of mass media has been positive. It has been overwhelmingly negative, and you can see that in American politics today.

We [in the U.S.] are way ahead of other countries in the use of this media. There is no major party in Italy making claims about fake news, as opposed to the United States. No such claim has come from any source in Italy. When Berlusconi talks about communists in Italian elections, very few people pay attention to that claim. Comparing the U.S. President Trump to Berlusconi is simply an error. A better comparison would be Trump to Il Duce [Mussolini].

Italy has a history of populism and has arguably begun to return. In your opinion, what will the long-term effects be, and will this populism become permanent in Italian politics?

Wherever you have free elections today, you have the immense problem of the social media as previously discussed. I do not think that Italy will revert to a second experience with fascism primarily because the twenty years of fascism in Italy brought a series of disasters. Even the younger generation in Italy would appreciate the severity of the consequences. Italy instead really has to worry about its economy, its growth rate, and whether or not it permits Italian enterprises to hire only through contract. In other words, if you could change some of the basic business laws in Italy to offer work to younger people not only on contract, you would have an immense change. If FSM is a major factor in the government, there will be more policy reforms of that type. This is not a populist change. Labeling it populist is a tactic used by the political right.

In the last decade, the eurozone has faced a devastating sovereign debt crisis that has fueled Euroscepticism, which, for example, the Five Star Movement embraces. If one of these parties were to be in the coalition government, how might the Italian and other European economies react and what effect will this have on the stability of the E.U. at large?

Luigi Di Maio of the FSM has in fact softened the attitude of the FSM with regards to membership in the E.U. This is not true, however, of the League. If Salvini were to become prime minister, Italy might move toward a Brexit of its own. However, I do not see Italy actually leaving the E.U. following Brexit. Italians, if anything, are wiser than the British have been in realizing the huge advantages that the E.U. offers, especially in regards to economic development. That particular danger is minimal in Italy.

I do not want to minimize the damage that would occur if the League became the leading party in an Italian coalition. Salvini considers Putin one of his friendliest political contacts and  blames Italy’s troubles on its E.U. membership. I think he would seriously move the country in a Brexit-like direction but would be very careful because the country would not likely follow him.

Italy is going to have to match the E.U. economic growth rate. Italy is below the average of all remaining E.U. members’ economic growth rate. Interestingly, however, Italy has strong economic fundamentals. The problem with Italy is the national debt, and the problem is the interest rate. If we were just talking about fundamentals, we would be much more worried about Spain than Italy.