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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The opposition within government
  5. Role play
  6. Conclusions
  7. References

This article focuses on the strategic communication of four populist parties which have served in national and/or sub-national governments during the last two decades: the Lega Nord (LN) and Forza Italia (FI) in Italy, as well as the Lega dei Ticinesi (LDT) and the Schweizerische Volkspartei/Union Démocratique du Centre (SVP/UDC) in Switzerland. The analysis identifies two strategies which have been adopted by these parties (i.e. the ‘opposition within government’ and ‘role playing’), as they try to maintain their identity and balance their recourse to ‘spectacular politics’ with the responsibilities of office. Unlike others, this study provides little support for the idea that government participation must bring with it the ‘moderation’ of populists, at least as far as their strategic communication is concerned.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The opposition within government
  5. Role play
  6. Conclusions
  7. References

Following an established tradition (Canovan, 1981; Mény and Surel, 2001; Taggart, 2000), populism is defined here as ‘an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous “others” who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice’ (Albertazzi and McDonnell, 2008a, p. 3). As I have previously argued (Albertazzi, 2006), the key ideological features of a populist party are: (a) opposition to liberal representative democracy, particularly the principle of ‘limited (restrained) majority rule’ (Sartori, 1987, p. 32); (b) the central position occupied by the ‘homogeneous’, inherently ‘good’ and constantly ‘threatened’ people in the party's discourse; (c) the idea that leader and party are one with the people; and, finally, (d) a willingness to borrow ideas and key words from both left and right, as opportunity dictates.

Faced with the dilemma of whether they should maintain their position of ‘exit’ as parties strongly opposed to the main members of the party system (which they see as corrupt and out of touch), but risk eventually appearing irrelevant in the eyes of voters, or opt for ‘voice’ by participating in government with other parties, but risk losing credibility among their core support, populists have chosen to ‘get their hands dirty’ with the business of governing in recent years, for instance in the Netherlands, Austria, Italy and Switzerland. However, while fears of a loss of support originating from government participation are justified for most parties (Müller and Strøm, 2003), this risk is even higher for ‘radical’ parties, including populists, as the chances are that, by accessing power, they may well either have to sacrifice core policies (which often clash with those of more moderate coalition partners), tone them down or else trade their approval with support for policies that their supporters might find difficult to stomach. In fact, much contemporary literature has argued that populist parties cannot sustain the strains of government coalition participation (e.g. Mény and Surel, 2001; Taggart, 2004). Moreover, when populists do manage to remain in government, this is often said to be at the expense of their ‘purity’ and radicalism (Heinisch, 2003, pp. 101–102; Minkenberg, 2001; Van Spanje and Van der Brug, 2007). However, for all the talk of populists being incompatible with government participation, there are four populist parties – the Lega Nord (LN) and Forza Italia (FI) in Italy, the Lega dei Ticinesi (LDT) and the Schweizerische Volkspartei/Union Démocratique du Centre (SVP/UDC) in Switzerland – which have now been very significant members of their national party systems for many years, have repeatedly served in successive national and/or regional governments and, crucially, have not suffered a decrease in their electoral support following their participation in government.1

While the available literature warns us not to overestimate the influence populists have exerted on coalition governments in various countries (Church, 2008, p. 609; Heinisch, 2003; Mudde, 2007, pp. 277–292), this article is concerned with the ways in which populists have managed to reconcile ‘voice’ and ‘exit’ at the rhetorical level and impose a framework of interpretation on their supporters once the decision to work alongside others has been taken. In the next two sections, the analysis will identify two approaches to government participation by populists, i.e. the ‘opposition within government’ (adopted by the SVP/UDC and the LN) and ‘role playing’ (preferred by FI and the LDT). In the first case, parties access government, turn into the ‘enemy within’, continue attacking (some of/all) their coalition partners, criticise the policies adopted by ‘their’ executives and refuse to tone down their rhetoric. In the second case, the roles of the ‘responsible’ member of government and that of the ‘radical’ leader are taken on by different people within a party or alliance. Whichever strategy is adopted, the article finds little evidence that government participation should inevitably bring with it the moderation of populists – at least as far as their strategic communication is concerned.

The opposition within government

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The opposition within government
  5. Role play
  6. Conclusions
  7. References

For the first time in Swiss history, populist key words have been deployed by a governing, national-based party – the SVP/UDC (Mazzoleni, 2003). Under the leadership of the entrepreneur Christoph Blocher, the party has radicalised its rhetoric, relentlessly campaigning on a very small selection of themes: immigration and asylum, constantly linked to law and order; taxation; and the country's relationship with the EU and other international organisations. Since its radicalisation, the SVP/UDC has doubled its national vote share (from 14.9 per cent in 1995 to 29 per cent in 2007), gaining another seat in the seven-strong collegial executive of Switzerland at the expense of the declining Christian Democrats – thus disrupting the so-called ‘magic formula’ for the allocation of government seats which had remained set in stone since the 1950s. Between 2003 and 2007, this extra seat went to the controversial Blocher himself, the architect of the party's turn to populism. However, in December 2007, the Swiss parliament proceeded to replace Blocher with a more moderate SVP/UDC member, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, thus frustrating the party's plans for his re-election.2 While this was a shrewd move on the part of centrist and left-wing parties (as they have excluded Blocher, but can still claim to have stuck to the principles of ‘concordance’ and ‘power sharing’ by voting in two SVP/UDC members as in the preceding legislature), the SVP/UDC denounced this development as a betrayal of the electorate and has severed all relations with the two party leaders (Widmer-Schlumpf and Schmid) who proceeded to take up seats in government against their own party's wishes. For the first time in Swiss history, the largest party in the country now claims to be ‘in opposition’.

In this context, it is worth considering what put Blocher on a collision course with the other members of the collegial government, eventually determining his exclusion. As several scholars have observed, the Swiss governing parties appear in fact to have ‘punished’ the SVP/UDC for its unwillingness to moderate its rhetoric and change its ways after Blocher entered the citadel of power (Pauchard and Raaflaub, 2007). Arguably in fact, the party even radicalised further at this stage, through a shrewd deployment of direct democracy, by resorting to intra-coalition infighting to assert its distinctiveness and by launching extreme, headline-grabbing campaigns. Indeed in recent years the SVP/UDC launched, or at least sponsored, controversial referendums, which were often at odds with the policies pursued by the government (especially on foreign policy, law and order and immigration). This may not have been the end of the world in a country where citizens are expected to vote on local and national legislation several times a year; besides, the SVP/UDC was not always on the winning side of these referendums (Church, 2008, p. 609). However, the proposals put forward by the SVP/UDC have been divisive, have caused embarrassment to the other governing parties, especially the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, and have dominated the political agenda at the expense of the themes they favour.

For instance, following the success of a 2006 referendum proposed by Blocher to toughen up legislation on immigration and asylum, another referendum was launched in July 2007 aimed at accelerating and facilitating the expulsion of foreign criminals which included measures (such as the idea that a minor committing a serious crime should be expelled from the country along with his or her parents) that contravene international treaties ratified by the Swiss. While his party kept making headlines by exploiting the opportunities offered by direct democracy,3 the minister Blocher continued making remarks about the need not to surrender his principles and ideas just to make the life of the cabinet any easier, claiming that the infringement of taboos, as well as robust discussions between government members, was essential to finding solutions to people's problems (e.g. Blocher, 2004, p. 2). Furthermore, Blocher repeatedly expressed his displeasure with collegial decisions taken by the executive, such as the signing of the Schengen treaty (Blocher, 2005) – in a country where, since cabinets are collegial, there is an expectation that ministers will take collective responsibility for all decisions and let their own parties voice doubts.

Finally, the SVP/UDC also launched a very aggressive electoral campaign in the run-up to the 2007 elections – partially financed by Blocher himself (Mombelli, 2007). Following the publication of a poster meant to back the campaign to expel migrants who commit crimes – three white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag – and flyers showing a minaret and an Islamic woman in a burka with the caption: ‘Baaden oder Baghdad?’, the tactics of the SVP/UDC have even been condemned by the Special UN Rapporteur on racism, Doudou Diène. The Swiss collegial government (in which the SVP/UDC held two seats out of seven) was thus forced to provide an official response to the UN, with Mr Diène taking the very unusual step of calling for the SVP/UDC to be exiled to the opposition (Burnand, 2007). A video released before the 2007 federal elections, ‘Heaven or Hell’, pitting immigrants, heroin addicts and violent youngsters against images of an idealised Alpine paradise of banks, technology and green pastures, has also been at the centre of fierce debates.

The strategy employed by the SVP/UDC under Blocher is very reminiscent of that adopted by the Italian Lega Nord in the second and third Berlusconi governments (2001–2006). Noted for its vociferous anti-EU and anti-Islamic propaganda, the party of Umberto Bossi has now accumulated considerable experience in power at both sub-national and national levels, by serving in government in 1994, between 2001 and 2006 and from 2008 onwards.4 While the SVP/UDC has positioned itself as the enemy of all other governing parties, the LN carefully picked friends and foes among its allies – doubling its vote in the process (from 3.9 per cent in 2001 to over 8 per cent in 2008). The party has thus been very loyal to Berlusconi's own Forza Italia party in recent years, while singling out the former Fascists of Alleanza Nazionale (AN) and the former Christian Democrats of the Unione dei Democratici Cristiani e Democratici di Centro (UDC) as its enemies, allegedly for being ‘pro-South’, sympathetic to the public sector and keen to slow down the process of constitutional reform (Albertazzi and McDonnell, 2005).

Although obviously unable to exploit the great opportunities offered by direct democracy in Switzerland, the LN also raised tensions within government and regularly mobilised its supporters and sympathisers. By clashing with AN and the UDC, the LN diverted attention from the many compromises and ‘barters’ that characterised its participation in government – such as, for instance, having to agree to a very large amnesty for illegal migrants in 2002 in exchange for tougher legislation on immigration, or repeatedly voting in favour of legislation meant to defend Berlusconi's own media interests and protect him from prosecution.

To try and preserve some ‘purity’, therefore, the LN has spent its years in government taking to the streets against the executive itself. It thus marched against Italy's support of Turkey's accession to the EU in 2004, despite the fact that the party had no real hope of reversing Italy's long-standing pro-accession stance (Albertazzi and McDonnell, 2008b, pp. 38–39), repeatedly condemned the EU leadership as ‘criminal’, opposed the euro (see, for instance, the discussion of the party's paper La Padania in June 2005 in McDonnell (2006)) and vociferously criticised the idea of financing costly public works in the South – despite the fact that the promise of major public works had featured prominently among the key promises made to the electorate by Berlusconi in the 2001 campaign.

As for the LN's ministers, they rarely moderated their language and behaviour, especially on issues such as immigration, Islam, the EU and relations with other countries (McDonnell, 2006). Admittedly, this strategy did sometimes backfire and both Stefano Stefani and Roberto Calderoli were forced to resign from their jobs as ministers. The former had made offensive remarks about German tourists that had soured relations between Rome and Berlin in July 2003, while the latter had appeared on television in July 2006 wearing a T-shirt bearing the Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons of the prophet Muhammad (widely seen as offensive in the Muslim world). Calderoli's actions had sparked off street fighting in the former Italian colony of Libya, which had resulted in several deaths. Overall, however, the strategy adopted by the Lega Nord has been successful, in so far as it has given the party an opportunity to enjoy the advantages of being in government, while, at the same time, pushing further up the political agenda (and taking full ownership of) questions such as immigration (particularly Islamic) and relations with the EU (with the populists vehemently against the single currency and both the widening and deepening of the integration process).

As mentioned above, a partially different strategy (whereby parties play a less destructive role within the alliances they belong to) is the one adopted by the Lega dei Ticinesi in Switzerland and Forza Italia in Italy. These parties have balanced participation in government with the need not to let go of radicalism by resorting to ‘internal’ and ‘external’ role play.

Role play

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The opposition within government
  5. Role play
  6. Conclusions
  7. References

The Lega dei Ticinesi is prevented from playing a major role in Swiss national politics by its regionalist (pro-Italian-speaking minority) ideology and the fact that it is only present in government in the southern canton of Ticino (home to just 4.3 per cent of the Swiss population). While, due to its size and organisational efficiency, as well as its deep roots in large and economically important parts of the Italian ‘North’, the Italian LN has served in several national governments, the LDT will probably never be able to play a decisive role in Swiss national politics (Albertazzi, 2007a). The party, however, provides an excellent example of a paradigmatic populist party which has been very successful at the sub-national level (Albertazzi, 2006). Besides purporting to ‘defend’ the Italian minority against the ‘voracity’ of the capital Berne (and the German-speaking majority), the LDT has campaigned on an anti-political, anti-EU and anti-immigration platform since 1990. Following a few years of dwindling support (mainly due to competition from the regional branch of the SVP/UDC), the LDT attracted a very healthy 12.6 per cent of the regional vote in the recent federal elections held on 21 October 2007 – a result reminiscent of its success in the early 1990s.

Despite the many ideological similarities, the strategy chosen by the LDT since accessing power in 1995 has been markedly different from that adopted by the SVP/UDC at the federal level. At first glance, it may appear that the LDT has simply become more ‘respectable’ and has moderated its tones. For instance, while in 1991 and 1992 the party had organised headline-grabbing mass protests (such as blocking the motorway linking Italy and Germany), which had sometimes resulted in clashes with the police, more recently rallies have always been ‘family friendly’. More importantly, the LDT-backed minister within the regional executive, Marco Borradori, has become known for his ‘softly-softly’ approach and willingness to compromise. Interviewed by this author, Borradori talked of the need to be seen as ‘pragmatic’ and the necessity to strike agreements with more traditional parties.5 So far, the fact that Borradori has never shown much appetite for ‘sinking the ship’ (as he once said to Maspoli (1998, p. 8)) seems to have been appreciated by the Ticinesi, as he has been returned to government at each relevant election since 1995, sometimes as the most voted candidate of all – which has obviously raised his profile quite considerably within his party.6

However, it would be a mistake to talk of a simple, straightforward moderation of tones by the party leadership. While Borradori got on with the business of governing, in fact, the ‘president for life’ of the party Giuliano Bignasca has kept the movement's revolutionary and uncompromising identity alive, through the shocking style and language adopted by the party's paper (which he edits) and by adopting a distinctively politically incorrect language himself when interviewed on regional TV and radio (Albertazzi, 2007a). At ease when clashing with other politicians, Bignasca (who also provides essential funding for the party's activities) has also been keen to castigate his own party's representatives for allegedly getting used to the trappings of power, ‘changing their skin’ and renouncing ‘the diversity that has been the strength of the LDT’ (Bignasca, 1995a, p. 3), or simply for not attending sessions of the regional parliament when important bills were voted upon (Bignasca, 1998b). After all, as the president says, ‘when one promises revolution, one should mean revolution’ (Bignasca, 1995b, p. 6). Interestingly, Bignasca has not spared Borradori either, despite his popularity with voters at large, and has even insulted him at times (e.g. Bignasca, 1998a and 1999).

While there has certainly been some real tension between the ‘revolutionary’ and the ‘institutional’ souls of the party (Mazzoleni, 1999), this dynamic seems to have served the rhetorical needs of the LDT very well indeed. In a political context dominated by consociationalism where, just like at the federal level, parties can only ever govern in coalition with others, the LDT appears to have found the right balance between verbal extremism and pragmatism: as a consequence, a movement allegedly born to revolutionise the Ticinese political system has been a permanent member of it since 1995 (when Borradori first became minister). When interviewed, Borradori talks openly about the ‘differences’ between him and Bignasca (his views being often not dissimilar from those of the local Liberals). Moreover, the party's paper has hosted the replies of those party members that Bignasca has attacked, with people arguing that ‘there is not one way, but many, to be a leghista’ (Morniroli, 1995, p. 3). In short, the party seems to have become well accustomed to this division of roles.

A highly similar strategy of ‘role play’ has also been deployed very consistently by the fourth party mentioned in the introduction, Forza Italia. However FI, whose leader and founder Silvio Berlusconi indeed resorts to radical language when in opposition, has normally ‘outsourced’ radicalism to the LN when in government. The party (now in the process of merging with AN on its right to create a new, unitary People of Freedom party) has similarities with the SVP/UDC: it has been the largest in its country since the mid-1990s, is again led by a charismatic entrepreneur (who has provided essential funding for its activities) and has also campaigned on a nationalistic, anti-political and anti-taxation platform. Voted out of government in 2006 (by a very small margin) the Berlusconi-led centre-right alliance gained 46.8 per cent of the vote at the April 2008 general elections, well ahead of its main centre-left rival on 37.5 per cent. This opened the way for a fourth Berlusconi government. As is well known, due to his direct control of several Italian media, Berlusconi has been able to secure an enormous amount of positive media coverage for himself and the party he has created. His influence has been especially important on traditional television, in a country where (comparatively) few people read newspapers and where cable, digital and satellite channels have developed at a slow pace.

Since FI gravitates entirely around the figure of Berlusconi (Calise, 2000), promoted in its rhetoric as the ‘saviour’ of the country and endowed with almost supernatural qualities, it would be challenging for the party to allow divergent lines to emerge within it. Furthermore, Berlusconi has always led the governments supported by his party – which makes it impossible for him to play the part of the reluctant member of government. For all these reasons, FI has nurtured the image of the moderate and responsible party when in government – while giving free reign to the LN on issues such as law and order and immigration.

Thus Berlusconi has shown some measure of restraint when addressing parliament (Berlusconi, 2001) and has rarely resorted to organising mass rallies while in government, as he often does when in opposition. On the other hand, the FI leader has not given up his ‘no-nonsense’, ‘politically incorrect’ language when talking to the media and has stressed his stylistic and linguistic distance from the professional political class in ways that have been very detrimental to his image abroad.7 As PM, Berlusconi's main problem was to keep a very heterogeneous and divided alliance together (Diamanti and Lello, 2005). He did attempt at times to be seen as a peace maker, the ‘broker’ between government allies (Hopkin, 2004); however, normally his party and the LN simply stuck to different, well-defined roles, while pitting themselves against the other governing partners (often accused of slowing down the pace of change).

Thus, at times, the leader of the LN, Umberto Bossi, was acting as Berlusconi's Rottweiler, barking and biting where Berlusconi, as PM, could not. Nowhere has this division of roles been more visible than where foreign policy was concerned: for instance, Bossi's relentless attacks against the Foreign Minister, Renato Ruggiero, eventually led to his resignation in January 2002, with Berlusconi (who himself apparently wanted him out) abstaining from criticising him, but not providing prime ministerial support to him either. The pattern was repeated a few months later, with Bossi defining the EU as ‘a Stalinist superstate’ and the PM – himself resentful of the limitations placed by the Maastricht Treaty on his ability to set fiscal and economic policy – playing down the significance of Bossi's remarks and justifying his ‘colourful language’ when challenged by other allies. Interestingly, so far the signs are that Bossi and Berlusconi intend to stick to this exact same script for the foreseeable future. Indeed, immediately after the 2008 election, Bossi caused the usual outcry by telling the press that ‘his’ men (300,000 of them, allegedly) were ready to ‘come down from the mountains’ carrying guns if federal reforms were not approved quickly (Corriere della Sera, 2008). Once again, Berlusconi regretted the incident and invited him to moderate his language. A recent initiative by the LN Minister of the Interior aimed at fingerprinting members of the Roma community (which has provoked much opposition from the EU Parliament) (BBC, 2008) provides a further example of how the government as a whole can nurture a tough image by constantly hiding behind the declarations and initiatives of the LN.

Conclusions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The opposition within government
  5. Role play
  6. Conclusions
  7. References

While the respective strengths of the parties considered in this article have fluctuated in the last 15 years (with the exception of the SVP/UDC, which has kept growing election on election), they have all enjoyed electoral success in very recent years, despite their participation in government coalitions. Moreover, while it is true that the Italian populist right has learned from past mistakes, as Reinhard suggests, this has not translated into ‘moderation and respectability’ (Heinisch, 2003, p. 119). Claims that populists and government participation should necessarily be incompatible thus appear to have been premature.

It is too early to say whether the LN will be forced to rethink and adapt the strategy of ‘opposition within government’ (of which it has been an unsurpassed master) now that the former Christian Democrats of the UDC are no longer part of the centre-right alliance and that AN is in the process of merging with Forza Italia. Left without identifiable ‘enemies’ within its coalition, it remains to be seen if the party will want to take on the PM himself, as it did in 1994. Generally speaking, however, given the adversarial environment that still constitutes Italian politics today, the Lega's extremism (and Berlusconi's willingness to turn a blind eye to it) can objectively be said to have worked well so far.

Despite the continuing electoral success of the SVP/UDC, it is in the specific Swiss context (with its tradition of mediation and concordance) (Albertazzi, 2007b) that this strategy has shown limitations. The populists have undoubtedly dominated their country's agenda, forcing their competitors constantly to react to their proposals and dance to their tune; however the partial ‘Europeanisation’ of the Swiss political system (with the SVP/UDC positioning itself as ‘the opposition’, initially within, and now apparently outside government), has cost the party dearly. As we have seen, in a symbolically charged development, its most important leader was excluded from the executive in 2007 and, more recently, the organisation has suffered a split.8 While it is too early to predict whether this will eventually translate into a loss of electoral support nationally, the risk for the SVP/UDC is to end up as a marginalised (albeit large) protest party. So far, therefore, the LDT's tactic of shouting loudly without rocking the boat appears more suitable to the Swiss environment and political culture.

Notes
  • I am grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for the financial assistance provided to this research (Research leave scheme, Application ID: AH/F004680/1). I also wish to thank Duncan McDonnell, the anonymous reviewers and the editors for their useful comments.

  • 1

    The case of Switzerland is, to an extent, unique, given the peculiarities of its political system, in which federalism, consociationalism and direct democracy all play a crucial role, and where the executive does not depend upon the support of the parliamentary majority (Church, 2004). However, Swiss politics has become much more ‘European’ in recent years – i.e. more adversarial, personalised and media oriented (Albertazzi, 2007b), as the political spectrum has become polarised into two opposing camps – the populists vs. all major parties of the centre and the left. The SVP/UDC can thus posit itself as the ‘other’ of the political class (taken as a whole), the ‘opposition’– a novelty in a country where ethnic, regional and political divisions have been kept at bay thanks to power-sharing agreements between all major parties at all levels of government. In short, Switzerland has recently become more comparable than many appreciate.

  • 2

    Ministers are elected by parliament in Switzerland. In normal circumstances (but not in 2007), the four largest parties would trade their support for each other's candidate(s) so that each party eventually secures the election (or re-election) of its candidate(s) of choice to the collegial executive.

  • 3

    As I write in July 2008, the SVP/UDC has just handed in enough signatures to force a nationwide ballot on banning the construction of minarets in the country (Häne, 2008).

  • 4

    Given space constraints, this discussion will focus mainly on the 2001–2006 period, as the Berlusconi-led government of 1994 only lasted a few months and as the 2008 one has been sworn in during May 2008 – just before this article was submitted.

  • 5

    Interviews were held in Bellinzona, Switzerland, on 11 June 2004 and 28 October 2005.

  • 6

    Unlike the federal executive (see Note 2), the Ticinese cantonal executive is directly elected.

  • 7

    Berlusconi's stunts on the international stage have become legendary. Suffice to say that he has compared a heckling German MEP to a Nazi concentration camp guard while assuming the rotating presidency of the EU; has argued that Western civilisation was ‘superior’ during a visit to Germany, only a few days after 9/11; and has claimed that Mussolini ‘never killed anybody’ in an interview given to The Spectator.

  • 8

    On 1 June 2008, having refused to denounce the Grisons-born Eveline Widmer-Sclumpf after she had accepted a government seat in place of Christoph Blocher, the whole cantonal branch of the SVP/UDC of the Grisons region was excluded from the party. The branch therefore created a new party.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The opposition within government
  5. Role play
  6. Conclusions
  7. References
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