Italy’s national populists have suffered a major setback. At the regional elections last weekend, Matteo Salvini and his Right-wing alliance failed in their quest to capture the Left-wing fiefdom of Emilia-Romagna.
When all votes had been counted, the Right-wing alliance, which had hoped to use a shock victory to force fresh national elections, finished more than seven points behind the Left. It wasn’t even close.
For much of the past three years Salvini has seemed unstoppable. While the 46-year-old has at times miscalculated, like last summer when he tried and failed to bring down Italy’s shaky government, he has developed a potent message.
Strident opposition to immigration, refugees, Brussels and Rome, combined with a near-constant presence on social media, has transformed Lega from a northern separatist fringe party into a serious force that has swept southwards and into first place in the national polls.
Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $10.00 (as of 08:25 UTC - Details) But now Salvini has been stalled. Cue much talk about the decline of populism. “Peak Populism?” asked The Times in its leader, in the shadow of his defeat. It is not the first time this question has been asked, of course. In the aftermath of Marine Le Pen’s defeat to Emmanuel Macron in 2017, many observers drew the same conclusion; populism had finally been kicked into decline. But then it continued to consolidate across much of Europe, not only at the national level but also winning a record number of seats in the European Parliament last spring.
As in 2017, many see Salvini’s defeat in Emilia-Romagna as a crucial watershed; a line in the sand in the global debate about how to defeat populism. Bruised by their defeat in the Brexit wars, and anxious about a looming rematch with Donald Trump in November, liberal campaigners are rushing to draw lessons from the regional battle, or what Italy’s La Repubblica has branded Salvini’s “first defeat”.
Some are already arguing that the main takeaway is the need for mass mobilisation. Perhaps the most striking feature of the election is that, compared to the previous contest in 2014, turnout surged by 30 points.
Then comes the more specific counter-mobilisation in the form of the ‘Sardines’ movement, which sprung up in November to oppose Salvini and the Right-wing turn in Italian politics. The Sardines, named on account of the way in which they pack themselves into town squares, are already being hailed around the world as an antidote to populism. “An Italian flash mob just pushed back Europe’s populist tide“, reads a headline in The Atlantic.
But is this really the case? There is certainly no doubt that the vibrant, youth-led movement played a role but precisely how much of a role is up for debate. Compared to the last election the Left’s share of the vote only increased by 2-points. The Right’s jumped by nearly 14-points while Salvini and Lega walked away with a new record share of the vote, as did the ultra Right Brothers of Italy who saw their support jump more than four-fold.