Italy’s upcoming election has been billed as a test for Europe amid growing right-wing populism and increasing anxiety over migration.
With widespread anger over economic stagnation and far-right parties making gains across the continent, Italians will cast their ballots to choose a new government on March 4.
Among the parties railing against immigration are the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), The League (also known as the Northern League), the self-professed fascist party CasaPound and the neo-fascist Forza Nuova.
According to recent polls, none of the parties currently command the requisite 40 percent support level needed to create a government, a requirement that was introduced in a new law last year.
In such a scenario, the president would have to find a cross-party solution to create a government, a grand coalition would have to be formed, or Italians would head back to the polls if no workable government is agreed upon.
Cas Mudde, an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia, explained that no single election could be a test for the broader populist phenomenon.
“On top of that, Italy has long been an outlier, with a solid populist tradition going back at least till the early 1990s,” Mudde, whose scholarship has focused on populism, told Al Jazeera.
“It also has very particular economic and political circumstances.”
Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party has struck a deal with The League, headed by far-right politician Matteo Salvini and a pair of smaller right-wing parties.
While Berlusconi is personally barred from running in the elections, owing to a 2013 tax fraud conviction, the bloc led by his party was polling at an average of 36 percent as of last week.
In the past, Berlusconi, a media tycoon, served as prime minister for a combined total of nine years, making him the country’s longest-serving ruler since the end of the Second World War.
Salvini has pledged to deport upwards of half a million refugees and migrants. Earlier this month, a former local candidate for the League in Macerata was suspected of shooting and injuring six African migrants in a drive-by shooting.
Although Salvini has railed in the past against the European Union, he has said he will not seek a referendum on Italy’s membership in the 28-country bloc.
Daniele Albertazzi, a senior lecturer in European politics at Birmingham University in the UK, said that the Berlusconi alliance with right-wing parties is part of a “very well established” relationship.
“Berlusconi has been prime minister four times, and he’s always had the support of the Northern League,” he told Al Jazeera.
Founded to bring together disparate centre-left parties in 2007, the Democratic Party (PD), which currently controls the governing coalition, is polling at around 23 percent.
Under the leadership of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (2014-2016), the party has lost much of its support in recent months.
Paolo Gentiloni, the country’s current prime minister and a PD member, is the most popular individual politician in the polls, with an approval rating of 47 percent, according to a survey in the daily Corriere della Sera.
The PD has steadily lost support since it last won more than 40 percent of the vote in 2014. Just two years later, M5S surpassed PD in Rome and Turin in regional elections.
Albertazzi explained that the decline in support for PD can be attributed to several factors, among them Renzi’s failed 2016 constitutional reform referendum that led to his resignation.
One of the primary reasons the PD has lost the support of much of its previous base is that it “has no clear message”, Albertazzi added.
“No one knows what the PD stands for, but everyone knows what Berlusconi is for.”
Local media has observed that the party’s primary problem appears to be the lack of potential coalition partners, likely rendering it unable to maintain its role in the government.
M5S was polling at an average of 28 percent, making it the most popular individual party ahead of the elections.
Founded in 2009 by a comedian, Beppe Grillo, the party has been described as anti-establishment, Eurosceptic and pro-environment.
M5S ruled out the potential of creating a coalition before the elections.
It was recently revealed that several party members had broken M5S protocol by failing to donate half of their salaries to small business.
Leader Luigi di Maio, who took over in September 2017 after being voted M5S prime minister, has promised to expel “bad apples” from the party before the nation takes to the ballots.
Yet, the scandal appeared to have little impact on M5S in the polls, observers have noted.
Although the party has rejected the left-right dichotomy of traditional politics, M5S is a member of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy in the European Parliament.
That group includes right-wing parties, such as the United Kingdom’s UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the ultra-nationalist Sweden Democrats.
Explaining that M5S had adopted a combination of positions typically associated with the left and the right, along with a focus on issues like internet access and the environment, Mudde described the party as having “an amorphous structure and a leader who stays out of practical politics”.
This “makes it very hard to figure out who speaks for the party”, Mudde said.
He added: “In the past years they have become more and more like a populist radical right party, however, being increasingly anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic.”
Although M5S has consistently advocated leaving the EU and the euro, the unified European currency used in many member states, its leader recently said that it preferred to stay in the bloc for the time being.
CasaPound was established in 2003 and describes itself as fascist. It has been accused of carrying out violence against political opponents and asylum seekers, charges it consistently denies.
Founded in 1997, Forza Nuova also hails the legacy of fascist ruler Benito Mussolini and has been on the front line of anti-migrant organising.
Both parties advocate the expulsion of refugees and migrants.
While neither CasaPound nor Forza Nuova is likely to land politicians in the government, they have had an increasingly significant impact on the national discourse, particularly regarding migration, according to analysts.
In November, CasaPound grabbed nine percent of the vote in Rome’s Ostia district, sparking fears among critics and political opponents.
“More than a growth in numbers, there has been a growth in visibility and efficacy in the way they organise,” Guido Caldiron, author of Extreme Right, a book about the far right in Europe, told Al Jazeera.
“In the 1990s, Forza Nuova tried but never succeeded to create a real party, but it was more of a movement,” he explained.
“Now [the far right] has a stronger link with mainstream politics,” he said, arguing that CasaPound and Forza Nuova have influenced the rhetoric of larger parties like the League.
Caldiron added: “This new wave goes along with the growth of the right in general in Italy … They have been legitimised since the Berlusconi era of the 90s. The fact that they call themselves fascists is no longer a scandal.”