You'll often hear the Northern League – or as it recently rechristened itself, the League – described in the English-language media as a far-right party, including by this website.
It has threatened to take Italy out of the euro and even the European Union. It bitterly opposes immigration. It has promised to expel migrants in Italy illegally en masse. Its leadership describes Islam as “incompatible” with Italian values. In early February, one of its former candidates in local elections shot six people of African origin in a racially motivated attack.
Looking at the League today, the parallels with other movements at the far right of European politics – France's Front National, the Freedom Party of Austria, Germany's Alternative für Deutschland – are clear.
Yet within Italy, the label “estrema destra” (extreme right) is typically reserved for neofascist groups like CasaPound and Forza Nuova, which openly revive the symbols, vocabulary and ideas of Mussolini-era fascism.
To understand why, you have to look at the League's history. Unlike those smaller groups, the League didn't start out with a nationalist agenda; in fact, until recently, it was more likely to say “Northerners first” than “Italians first”, the slogan leader Salvini has used in the election campaign.
A Northern League supporter in Milan. Photo: Paco Serinelli/AFP
A political chameleon
“It's a kind of chameleonic party,” says Davide Vampa, a lecturer in politics and international relations at Aston University in the UK, who points out that the League is the oldest force in Italy's current parliament. The key to its survival, Vampa told The Local, is its ability to adapt.
The League was founded 27 years ago on the pipe dream of separating northern Italy from “Roma ladrona” (“thieving Rome”) and southern Italians, whom it characterized as layabouts and criminals. But under Matteo Salvini, the League's leader of just over four years, the party has dropped references to secession from its programme, aiming instead at national power. Its anger has been redirected at Brussels and most especially, immigrants.
What allowed Salvini to reinvent the party this way was the very fact that the League doesn't have a fixed ideology, far-right or otherwise.
“What's in its DNA is populism, which is different from the far right in several aspects,” says Marco Tarchi, professor of political science at the University of Florence.
“It's suspicious of 'politics', seeks to speak to the concerns of ordinary people, mistrusts ideology, doesn't worship the state and on the contrary is wary of its excessive intrusiveness, doesn't cultivate ideals of national greatness but wants only to defend its own territory from those it considers invaders.
“If today many people confuse it with the far right, it's essentially because it fiercely opposes immigration and demands national sovereignty as regards the European Union and its policies. But it's a question of specific convergences, not a deep affinity.”
Matteo Salvini alongside his allies in the European Parliament, Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders and France's Front National president Marine Le Pen. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP
A ‘rib' of the left
In its former life, the Northern League converged with the centre and the left, counting former communists, socialists, anti-fascists, federalists, libertarians and others among its ranks. Throughout its first decade it talked about teaming up with centrist and leftist movements, and in some cases did so; one left-wing prime minister described the League as a “rib” of Italy's left.
Even today the League retains some of its old guard – another reason why the party's position is hard to pin down. There remain members who still dream of secession – just a week before the election, supporters in Milan marched with banners that read “North first” – as well as moderates whose priority is greater autonomy within Italy.
Under Salvini, the party is becoming a narrower church. Those banners in Milan were cropped out of photos shared by one of the League's candidates in the south, a region that Salvini has gone out of his way to court by forming a southern spin-off movement, Noi Con Salvini (“Us with Salvini”).
Meanwhile the moderate face of the League, Lombardy president Roberto Maroni, is not running for re-election in Italy's most populous region, despite his popularity there. One of the party's founding members, Maroni unexpectedly announced his retirement two months before the vote and has since been unabashedly critical of Salvini, whom he accuses of betraying the League's original cause.
Maroni was promptly replaced with a candidate who said that immigration to Italy threatened to wipe out “our white race”.
Matteo Salvini on the stump in Rome in March 2016. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
Neither right nor left, but both
Yet even Salvini's League, with its discourse of nativism, doesn't confine its ideas to one side of the political spectrum. Like all populist parties, its platform is a grab bag of policies borrowed from both left and right.
“Its programme has aspects that put it mainly near the right (for example, defending small and medium businesses, criticizing the tax system) and others that place it less far from the left (policies that favour working people and those at the lower end of society – provided they're Italian by birth),” says Tarchi.
So, for instance, the League squares proposing a modest 15 percent tax rate for all with promising to lower the retirement age, and calls for free, state-funded child care while pushing to legalize brothels.
In this respect it resembles the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), Italy's leading populist force, which overlaps with the League in several areas: its scepticism towards the EU and friendliness towards Russia, notably, as well as its blunt tone on immigration and criticism of mandatory vaccinations for children. At the same time, the M5S proposes a universal basic income and prioritizes environmental protection, confounding attempts to categorize it as a left- or right-wing movement.
Outside Italy, another parallel might be the UK Independence Party, says Vampa: like the League, it was once a single-issue party that has since expanded its platform to include opposition to immigration and multiculturalism, economic libertarianism and electoral reform. Today both can be defined as “populist radical right” parties, he says.
The shifting spectrum
But it's not just the League that has shifted. In Italy, as in many countries across Europe, the understanding of what constitutes the “far” side of politics is changing.
“Positions that in the past could have been considered as extreme and unacceptable are becoming mainstream,” Vampa told The Local.
In a campaign that has seen CasaPound and Forza Nuova – both small but attention-grabbing – parade Fascist-era slogans and iconography on Italy's streets, the League is not the furthest-right party in Italian politics. It's not even the furthest-right party in its tripartite coalition: the Brothers of Italy, founded from the ashes of post-fascist groups, is arguably more extreme. Even Silvio Berlusconi, the supposedly moderate lynchpin of the alliance, governed for several years with those same post-fascist groups, during the same period that he declared “Mussolini never killed anyone”.
The window of what is sayable by politicians has shifted, probably because what the public wants to hear has shifted too.
Far-right demonstrators clash with anti-riot police in Macerata. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
An even fresher example: the response to February's racist shooting in Macerata, central Italy, with which former League candidate Luca Traini claimed he was avenging the death of a white Italian woman allegedly dismembered by a Nigerian immigrant.
“The interesting – well, some people would define it as worrying – thing is that the reaction has not been condemnation of this act, but actually solidarity with this man who did this horrible thing,” says Vampa. “[It means] there is a problem that the mainstream parties have not been able to address, and it's emerging.”
In this context, being outside the traditional centre of politics – indeed, outside traditional politics altogether – isn't a turn-off, but a draw. Over recent years globalization, the loss of manufacturing jobs, financial crisis and a dramatic increase in the number of migrants arriving in Italy, many of them illegally, “generated in a large part of public opinion a profound mistrust in the professional political class and favoured the expansion of support for populist movements that attack the establishment,” according to Tarchi.
“Today the contest isn't between extreme and centre, but between professional politicians and outsiders (like the League and the Five Star Movement) who criticize their inefficiency and corruption.”
From now on we at The Local will try to reflect more of this context whenever we write about the League, which is why you'll hear us use the terms “populist” and “radical right” more frequently.
But only March 4th will provide the definition that really counts: whether Italian voters consider the League a force to be kept at the margin of politics, or a legitimate alternative to the mainstream to be welcomed into national government.