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By Luca Mangiacotti

The 2013 Italian elections represented a shift in the national party politics equilibrium. The parties distribution that characterized the so-called “second republic” was mainly a bipolar structure of centre-right and centre-left coalitions (between 1992 and 2013). With the positive result obtained by the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) in the political election of 2013, which declared itself post-ideological and was identified as a populist force, a third pole was added and the rearrangement of forces was a consequence. The large vote share obtained in the political election of 2018 by the two major populist parties, M5S and Lega – reaching 50% – outlined the possibility to create a government with a strong focus on welfare chauvinism. This is because both parties focused on the anti-austerity measures and exclusionary attitudes towards minorities and migrants.

The 2018 elections were mainly connoted by a sentiment of rage against migrants and previous governments politicians, leading to a populist anti-system alliance that represents the vote in the whole national territory in a disparate way – with large representativeness of Lega in the north and of M5S in the south. The elections led to the formation of the yellow-green government (known as Conte 1) headed by Giuseppe Conte, a coalition between M5S and Lega. The reconfiguration of the welfare system was one of the keystones of the government action, which produced various policies. Each of the two parties focused on the respective myths to achieve key programmatic goals – engendering a sort of ‘win-win’ situation. These included the introduction of Italy’s first universal social assistance measure, the so-called ‘citizenship income’ and the so-called ‘dignity decree’, partly re-regulating temporary employment – promoted by M5S –; the ‘security decrees’ and laws for family’s economic assistance – promoted by Lega –; and pensions reform, a major issue for both parties. The security decree has had several consequences on immigrants’ access to welfare and migrants regularization. This, combined with the current immigration laws, led to a consequent silent enclosure of welfare and affected the possibility to enter Italy and Europe.

The policies of the Conte I government responded to a shared necessity to pass from a phase of prolonged austerity to a new phase characterised by more expansive welfare measures, limited to entitled citizens. The electoral campaign slogan by the Lega Prima gli Italiani – Italians first, resumes well the welfare chauvinism, which considers that the “welfare state [becomes] a system of social protection for those who belong to the ethnically defined community and who have constituted for it”.

The party policy programme reflects the social segmentation of Lega’s electorate. The party started its transformation from regional to national party after the electoral debacle of 2013 – which was partially due to judiciary and corruption scandals of the former leadership, which led to the election of Salvini as Secretary-General. The rhetoric and ideological party transformation from a northern-Italians centred party to a nationalist party led to the construction of a new outgroup and a larger, national, ingroup – formed by autonomous workers, small entrepreneurs, housewives, white-collars; low educated voters; and voters located mainly in cities’ peripheries, and small-medium cities.

To appeal to such an electorate, welfare comes to be characterized as a resource that must be privatized in certain sectors – as the public health system, following Lombardy’s model – and to be restricted for a public of people who produce the nation’s wealth and identified along lines of citizenship. The base of the discourse is the assumption of resources scarcity and deprivation from free-riders – identified in unemployed people and migrants. One of the keys to reading this phenomenon is the combination of rising quotes of migrants and decreasing GDP, especially in the political attitude of the losers of globalisation who introject ontological insecurity of life conditions – like precarious work conditions and low salaries.

This ‘welfare chauvinistic’ turn in Lega’s stance became even more clear after the collapse of the Conte I government in 2019 when Lega passed into opposition seats. A new government alliance was created with the involvement of the centre-left parties and M5S, maintaining the same Prime Minister, giving birth to the ‘Conte II’ cabinet. Lega and M5S joined again in the same government under Prime Minister Mario Draghi in 2021, however, their ideological position drifted apart.

Since the rupture with the Lega, the M5S has attempted to consolidate as a Centre-left party leaving to the Lega the welfare chauvinist approach. The Lega has developed a common discursive and ideological platform with far-right Fratelli d’Italia (FDI). From the opposition, both Lega and FDI engaged in the same ingroup construction, putting pressure on policies in favour of the “Italian people” – defined through a dichotomy counterpoising the ‘deserving’ productive Italians to the undeserving others.

The rhetorical operation involves different social actors. There is a huge focus on policies able to facilitate entrepreneurs of the “Made in Italy” with a lower taxation regime. They are described as heroes who dare to produce wealth in the nation despite the industrial depression – particularly after the eurozone crisis of 2008 – to restore the Italian economic grandeur of past times. In this regard, the emotion of nostalgia constitutes the subtext of the rhetorical strategy enacted by both parties.

The imagined community of the country in the imaginary of the Lega and FDI consists of national ethnic homogeneity, family-owned industries, a competitive artisan sector, and families with high nativity rates. The construction of this imagined in-group entails attacking a part of the ethnic ingroup with the presumption that it detracts from and obstacles the common economic effort to re-establish the country’s lost grandeur: the recipients of the ‘Citizenship income’. Those people are accused of laxity, benefiting from welfare policies to not work, enforcing the common sense of citizenship income recipients as slackers. This can be read as a rhetorical strategy to consolidate an image of ‘productive’, deserving Italian people, and to attack part of the M5S’ electoral base. The citizenship income is indeed perceived and represented in the right-wing discourse as a policy helping unemployed people living in the centre-south of Italy, thus reinforcing the stereotype of the southerners as welfare parasites, and recovering Lega’s original ‘Northern-centric’ ideology and discourse of the pre-Salvini period.

Moreover, the outgroup of migrants and strong powers – international institutions, banks, finance, and transnational companies – lives inside and outside the nation’s borders. The emotion of insecurity enforces rage in the differential treatment discourse’s frame: allegedly only Italy has to follow long-run austerity policies, only Italians must follow the rules. Empathy is a sentiment deserved only for brothers and sisters inside the imagined community: the narrative emphasized the lack of protection of Italians as a differential treatment enacted by centre-left parties and supranational institutions, seen as cosmopolitan forces at work against the needs of the nation.

As I write in February 2022, the two parties assume a similar discourse, but Lega is part of the government majority within Mario Draghi’s government. While Lega decided to support the national coalition government – because of the pact between the internal factions, Salvini’s followers, Giorgetti’s wing, and the group led by local and regional governors –, FDI remained in the opposition banks. Their current strategy appears to be following the centre-right imperative ‘march divided, strike united’: they share the same ingroup, but FDI has a presumption of pureness – because of the non-involvement in Draghi’s government, characterised by spurious alliances – and a major nationalistic identity, heritage of the Italian Social Movement and National Alliance. For a few months already opinion polls have indicated that Lega and FDI together sum up around 40% of the electorate, which is close enough to the percentage of vote share by M5S and Lega at the last elections. This may indicate that the new polarization of the Italian political system divides welfare chauvinists from the rest.

Thanks to Arianna Tassinari for the precious advices and the support during the writing work.

Luca Mangiacotti is master student at the Faculty of Political Science and Sociology, Scuola Normale Superiore (Firenze) and UNPOP trainee at CES – Centre for Social Studies (Coimbra). He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science (University of Pisa), specialized in Political history and theory. He is currently enrolled in the master’s degree in Politics, Institutions and Markets at University of Florence. He also writes and shoots for DinamoPress – information website – about Indian politics and Italian labour mobilizations.