Authoritarian Populism Index.

The Authoritarian Populism Index is developed by Timbro.

Timbro is the leading free market think tank in the Nordic countries. Our mission is to promote and disseminate ideas supporting the principles of free markets, free enterprise, individual liberty and a free society. Timbro was founded in 1978 by Sture Eskilsson and the Swedish Employers’ Association, a precursor to the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise.  Since 2003, Timbro is financed by the Swedish Free Enterprise Foundation.


International outreach and translation supported by Friedrich Naumann Foundation and Atlas Network.


Populism Rank: 2


Voter support for radical left in last election (2022): -1.1 %.
Voter support for radical right in last election: +16,4 %.
Populist or radical parties in government (March 2024): 2 (FdI, Lega)
Number of radical or populist MEP:s (2019): 48/76.

01 Speakers

In recent decades, the Italian party system has been highly fragmentarised with a great number of parties, party coalitions and high electoral volatility. During the post-war period, however, Italian politics was dominated by three main parties: the Christian Democrats (DC), the Socialist Party (PSI), and the Communist Party (PCI). The Christian Democrats, attracting voters from the political centre and right, held the prime minister position uninterrupted from the end of World War II until 1981. On the left, the Communist Party was the stronger party overall, with the PSI playing a more subordinate role. The 1948 election was particularly significant as Italian politics became a battleground in the global conflict between East and West during the early years of the Cold War. Strong support from the United States favoured the Christian Democrats, who won the election after a highly controversial and dirty campaign.

PSI broke ties with PCI after the events in Hungary in 1956. At the same time, DC moved towards the left, shifting the balance in the party system towards the centre, despite the presence of a strong Communist Party. During the 1970s, PCI sought cooperation with DC, promoting Eurocommunism and distancing itself from the Soviet Union. From 1976 to 1978, PCI supported the Christian Democrats in parliament, marking a historic collaboration. This ended with the assassination in 1978 of Aldo Moro, a left-leaning Prime Minister for the Christian Democrats in the 1960s and 1970s. PCI condemned the terrorism of the Red Brigades but lost popularity due to general dissatisfaction with left-wing radicalism. However, following the death of popular party leader Enrico Berlinguer, PCI was the largest party in the European Parliament elections in 1984, the first time a communist party won a national election in Western Europe since Finland in 1958. 


In the 1990s, the mainstream from the PCI entered the new democratic left coalition that was formed and which, through several mergers and alliances, now constitutes the core of the leading social democratic party, the Democratic Party (PD). The radical leftist ideas were kept alive in the newly formed The Communist Refoundation Party (PRC [Partito della Rifondazione Comunista]) with relatively strong voter support, receiving at least five percent of the votes in each election until 2006. The party now leads a dwindling existence.

Aldo Moro in kidnapping video from The Red Brigades in 1978.

There has always been relatively strong support for radical right-wing alternatives in Italy.  A first right-wing parliamentary challenger was the Fronte dell’Uomo Qualunque (FQ, Front of the Ordinary Man). Formed in 1946, it participated in the elections of 1946 and 1948. The party directly opposed the anti-fascist parties and was hence accused of harbouring many former fascists. It also advocated for monarchy. Led by Guglielmo Giannini, it rejected ideologies and saw no significant difference between fascists and anti-fascists. The party had brief successes in the 1946 election but later lost voters to the DC. The remnants of the party merged into MSI in the 1970s. Qualunquismo has become a term for a cynical view of politics, similar to poujadism in France in the 1950s.


In 1946, the Italian Social Movement (MSI) was founded in Rome. The party carried on the legacy of Mussolini: to restore fascism and crush democracy. MSI had many local branches, was funded through private donations, and collaborated with fascists across Europe. MSI benefited from Italy never fully reckoning with its past in the same way as Germany, allowing it to spread the myth that the Italian regime had been relatively harmless.


MSI became a home for many who had worked under Mussolini. However, voter support was weak, and the first election in 1948 was a disappointment. During the post-war decades, MSI gradually evolved in a post-fascist direction. In 1994, the party was replaced by Alleanza Nationale (AN), which was democratic and national-conservative, through a merger with parts of the Christian Democrats. Former MSI members dominated AN, and MSI’s last leader, Gianfranco Fini, became its party leader.

Gianfranco Fini.

Forza Italia (FI) emerged when a vacuum was created on the right after the corruption scandals (“tangentopoli”) of 1992-93. Many initially believed that the reformed communists in the PDS would benefit and come to power. Media magnate Silvio Berlusconi then formed a populist but pro-European and pro-market party and became the largest party in the 1994 election. Although the party shared many similarities with populist parties in terms of political communication, it also positioned itself ideologically and policy-wise close to the former Christian Democrats and quickly became part of the establishment. Occasionally, FI under Berlusconi turned softly eurosceptic, and it can be considered a borderline populist party for much of its existence.


In the 1994 election, FI formed an alliance with AN in the southern districts. AN was a broad party with several factions. Economically, it was to the left of FI, advocating for more state intervention. It reconsidered its view on the EU, aiming to become part of a large right-wing coalition. It retained the MSI symbol in its party logo, however, emphasising continuity while its leaders often distanced themselves from fascism and Nazism. In 2009, it eventually merged into a Berlusconi-led coalition.

In the north, FI instead formed an alliance with Lega Nord (LN, Northern League). LN was formed in 1989 through the merger of several regional parties in northern Italy, with the most important being Lega Lombardo and Lega Veneta. LN was at times a secessionist party that advocated for independence for the northern regions from central authority, under the name of “Padania”. In addition, they were critical of immigration and placed themselves to the right on economic issues. Lega Nord made a breakthrough in regional elections in 1990, followed by its first national success in the 1992 and 1994 elections, when it formed an alliance with Forza Italia (FI).

Silvio Berlusconi.

Lega Nord entered Berlusconi’s first government in 1994 and secured five ministerial positions: budget, interior, industry, Europe, and institutional reforms. However, conflicts within the government between LN and centralist AN led to the government’s downfall after about a year, and in 1996, FI lost the election to the centre-left. 


In the 1996 election, Lega Nord ran independently, apart from the left and right coalitions, and ruled out further collaboration with Berlusconi. However, in the run-up to the 2001 election, Lega Nord once again allied with Berlusconi. The election was a major disappointment for the party, receiving only four percent of the votes. For Berlusconi, the election was a success, however and FI regained power and ruled for five years. 


Ahead of the 2006 election, Berlusconi sparked controversy when he sought and received support from, among others, Alessandra Mussolini and a well-known Holocaust denier. Between 2009-13, FI was in practice replaced by People of Freedom, which was a merger of FI, AN and several smaller parties.


In the 2010s, Lega Nord transformed into a national party, with branches in the south as well. Long time party leader Umberto Bossi resigned in 2011 following a corruption scandal. The name change to Lega symbolised that it was now a party for all of Italy, no longer just a separatist movement for northern Italians. Under Matteo Salvini’s leadership, starting in 2013,  opposition to immigration became the party’s most important issue. Salvini promised his voters to deliver “More carabinieri! Fewer irregular aliens!”, and on the European level Lega allied themselves with far-right parties such as Dutch PVV and French FN. Salvini also had close ties to Vladimir Putin until the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.


Lega once again entered government in early 2021, this time with only three posts. After the 2022 election, Lega together with FI joined Georgia Meloni’s government, holding five posts, including deputy prime minister for Salvini. 


In a study on the previous government participation of Lega, the authors found that they were able to achieve key policy victories without having to tone down their rhetoric, or losing support of party members. With that said, it is obvious that Lega contains fractions – centrists and rightists, moderates and radicals, and that there time and again have been tensions between them. Bernard-Henri Lévy has called Salvini “A European Putinist” and described him as a mixture between a casino boss in a Scorsese film and a member of the Corleone clan. During the winter of 2019-20, the Sardines Movement was formed, a grassroots initiative organising demonstrations against Salvini.

Matteo Salvini.

The Five Star Movement (M5S, Movimento 5 Stelle) was founded in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo. The party was preceded by several years of activism from Grillo’s side, involving various forms of citizen initiatives. “Vaffanculo day” (V-day, literally meaning fuck-off day, but also referencing the Normandy landings, the film V for Vendetta, and the Roman numeral V, ) was launched in 2007 and aimed to organize and mobilize for changes in nomination systems, among other things. Ahead of the 2009 European Parliament election, Grillo introduced candidates on other parties’ lists.


M5S was formed as a political party in the fall of 2009. From 2010 to 2012, they participated in numerous local and regional elections, achieving increasing success, which also gained national attention. In the 2013 general election, they became the second-largest party. Luigi di Maio became involved with Grillo as early as 2007, quickly rose through the ranks, entered parliament in 2013, and became the party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2018 election.

The Italian parliamentary election of 2018 election marks one of the biggest triumphs of European populism so far. Not only did the Five Star Movement become the largest party, gathering more voters than almost any other party had done in decades. Lega won the second most seats in parliament. Thus, Italy became the first country in Europe where the two largest parties in parliament were populist. M5S and Lega then formed a coalition government with Giuseppe Conte as prime minister. Conte had never been politically active before and followed in a tradition of technocratic prime ministers (Lamberto Dini, Mario Monti). The government negotiations were preceded by great uncertainty and speculation about immediate snap elections. M5S refused to enter into a coalition with Berlusconi’s FI, which was in an alliance with Lega. Conte himself initially declined the position before accepting it again. The president refused to approve Paolo Savona as finance minister, citing his perceived euroscepticism (Savona instead became Minister for Europe). Eventually, the government was formed and Di Maio and Salvini both became deputy prime ministers. Di Maio was responsible, among other things, for the introduction of a system of citizen’s income, which had been an important election promise for M5S. Salvini, on the other hand, paid full focus on reducing immigration: closing Italian ports to boats carrying people rescued from the sea, slashing funding for reception centres, tightening the criteria for migrants being granted protected status.

Beppe Grillo.

After barely a year, the government fell when Salvini motioned no confidence against Conte over disagreement on public investment in railroads. Between 2019 and 2021, M5S instead governed in coalition with the centre-left PD. Conte continued as prime minister, and Di Maio served as foreign minister. Conte resigned in February 2021 and was replaced by Mario Draghi, former president of the European Central Bank. After resigning as prime minister, Conte joined M5S and was elected party leader during the summer of 2021. Conte has been described as a “technocratic populist,” self-identifying as the defender of the people. There were recurring conflicts between him, Grillo, and Di Maio. In the summer of 2022, Di Maio left M5S and formed a short-lived party, Insieme per il Futuro, which served as a parliamentary platform.


M5S is a populist party in the sense that it rejects both the left and the right. However, the party has combined progressive social policies and green politics with cooperation with anti-immigrant parties. Its view of democracy is populist, with scepticism towards representative democracy and demands for increased direct democracy. Di Maio wants to leave the euro, dissolve NATO, and have the US stop confronting Russia, but eventually did condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine. Conte’s government reduced taxes for small business owners, introduced a citizen’s income, made climate investments, advocated for eurobonds, and managed the COVID-19 pandemic.

Giorgia Meloni.

Francesco Storace had been a member of MSI and AN, for which he was elected to parliament in 1994. Storace belonged to the right-wing faction and became increasingly critical of Fini’s leadership. In the early 2000s, he was the regional president of Lazio and for a brief period from 2005 to 2006, he was the Minister of Health in Berlusconi’s third government. In 2007, Storace formed a new right-wing party: La Destra (LD, The Right). LD was authoritarian, socially conservative, nationalist, combining statism and welfare investments with proposals for a flat tax. LD has thus also attracted libertarians like Giancarlo Pagliarini, who previously represented Lega Nord.


Before the 2008 election, LD formed an electoral alliance with the small fascist party MSFT (Movimento Sociale Fiamma Tricolore). MSFT was formed in 1995 when MSI merged into AN, by individuals who refused to join AN and rejected centralism. The party has remained faithful to the fascist ideals of the Mussolini regime all along. MSFT secured one seat in the Senate in 1996, which it defended in 2001. However, in elections to the Chamber of Deputies, it has never won more than a fraction of the votes. MSFT stands out for its combination of radical anti-democratic ideology and a humorous and youthful approach.


La Destra finally merged with Azione Nazionale (AN) in 2017, a short-lived party that tried to fill the void left by the old AN. The newly formed party was called Movimento Nazionale per la Sovranità (MNS). Two years later, MNS merged into FdI.


As an even more radical alternative, Forza Nuova (FN) was formed in 1997, a fascist and violent party. FN was founded and led by Roberto Fiore. Fiore was active in militant far-right groups in the 1980s, was arrested in absentia while living in Britain, and collaborated with the British National Party’s Nick Griffin. Back in Italy, he formed FN and has positioned himself as a leading ideologue on the far right. Fiore calls himself a neo-fascist. FN has also not garnered more than a fraction of the voters but has been part of the broad electoral alliances around Berlusconi.

Another movement that emerged from this milieu is CasaPound Italia (CPI), formed in 2003 and eventually transformed into a political party. However, CPI has also not been successful, gathering just under one percent of the vote in the 2018 election, and subsequently deciding to return to being a social movement. In 2019, a legal process began in Rome after Facebook (Meta) removed CPI from the platform due to the spread of hate speech. The court initially ruled in favour of CPI, but the decision was overturned in 2022.


The Brothers of Italy (FdI) was founded in 2012 by several members who split from People of Freedom. The first leader was Ignazio La Russa, who had previously been a member of both MSI and AN. In 2013 Georgia Meloni succeeded him. The FdI uses the tricolour flame as a logo, previously used by MSI and AN and said to symbolise the spirit of Mussolini. It has been a part of an electoral coalition with Lega and FI in every election it has contested.


On economics, FdI is slightly right-leaning.In the summer of 2023, the FdI-led government, despite protests, curtailed the citizen income project after four years, raising the requirements to receive benefits. Meloni also introduced a controversial tax on banks.


On social matters, FdI maintains a moderate conservative stance. Notably, under the Meloni-led government, measures have been implemented to restrict same-sex parents from legally registering their partner’s child as their own. Additionally, the party maintains a staunch opposition to abortion. While previously known for its outspoken criticism of the EU, Meloni’s tenure in power has seen a notable shift in attitude towards a more pragmatic approach.

EP elections

Number of authoritarian or populist MEP:s (2019): 48/76


PCI was one of the largest party delegations in the whole EP during the 1980s. Between 1979 and 1989, it was a key member of the Communist and Allies group. When this group split in 1989, PCI founded the European United Left, which collapsed in 1993 when PCI dissolved as a party. Italy has thereafter been represented in the GUE group by PRC (1994-2009), PdCI (1999-2009), and by AET (2014-19).

MSI was represented in the European parliament between 1979 and 1994 and was part of Le Pen’s far-right group between 1984 and 1989. Lega Nord first entered the EP in 1989 with two MEPs joining the Rainbow group of Greens and Regionalists. In 1994, they instead joined the liberal ELDR group, where they remained until 1997. After that, they were mostly non-attached until 2004 when they joined the Independence & Democracy group and in 2009 the EFD group. 


In 2014, M5S joined the EP and became a member of the EFDD group, while Lega instead became non-attached until they one year later were co-founders of the Europe of Nations and Freedom group. After 2019, Lega joined the new I/D group. Grillo tried to get M5S into ALDE but was denied, and subsequently chose to be non-affiliated. 


AN was a member of the UEN group from 1994 to 2004.

lega summary

Economics: RIGHT
Social issues: MODERATE
Democratic credibility: HIGH

m5s summary

Economics: LEFT
Social issues: MODERATE
Democratic credibility: HIGH

FDI summary

Economics: RIGHT
Social issues: MODERATE
Democratic credibility: HIGH