Study: Right-wing populists turn "foes into friends" to broaden support

EKRE supporters demonstrate against high electricity prices
EKRE supporters demonstrate against high electricity prices Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Political scientists at the University of Tartu have analyzed the approaches used by right-wing populist parties in Italy and Estonia to broaden their voter bases. In the study, attempts by Italian party "Lega" to appeal to voters in southern Italy, were compared to efforts of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) tried to reach out to voters in Ida-Viru County, ahead of the 2021 local elections.

"We have a successful example of the Lega, the Italian nationalist party, turning on its heels. So, we wanted to see if the same model could help explain what EKRE was doing in Ida-Viru County," said Stefano Braghiroli, co-author of the study and associate professor of European Studies at the University of Tartu.

Braghiroli added, that all political parties combine elements of pragmatism and consistency. "If you're very pragmatic and you're always changing course, voters will understand that because you're like a weathervane. If a party is too rigid and doesn't adapt to changing circumstances, that can also drive voters away," Braghiroli said.

Salvini's U-turn

Italy's far-right party "Lega," formerly known as the "Lega Nord," contrasted the economically well-off northern Italian region of Padania, with the poorer south, which it portrayed as the main cause of the country's problems.

"The party built up the perception of northern Italy as a separate entity called Padania, which was presented as having the potential to become an independent state. This rhetoric, however, remained at the political level and the actual division of Italy into separate entities did not come about," Braghiroli explained.

By the middle of the last decade, the Lega Nord's popularity had peaked, meaning a change of approach was needed. "Until then, the party's image had been linked to its regional identity, and not so much to its national identity. However, as that narrative was no longer moving the party forward, it needed to refresh its image," Braghiroli said.

Under new party leader Matteo Salvini, the attitude towards southern Italy changed. "Instead of opposing the south, the party now opposes Brussels and, for example, the arrival of immigrants in Italy. In around two years, there was a shift from a narrative that distinguished Padania from the rest of Italy, to one that emphasized the need to put Italy, as a whole, first," Braghiroli explained.

Within five years, the Lega, which had been unpopular in southern Italy, became a party with a fairly respectable polling record. "According to recent polls, the Lega has double-digit support in southern Italy. So, something extraordinary had to have happened," Braghiroli pointed out. 

EKRE's move into Ida-Viru County

Like the Lega, EKRE achieved a fairly high level of support, around 17-18 percent, after which it did not grow any further. According to Braghiroli, in the run-up to the 2021 local elections in Estonia, EKRE's attempt to expand into regions, where the Russian-speaking population is in the majority, particularly Ida-Viru County, stood out. Thus, at least to a certain extent, it was an attempt to soften the previous distinction between ethnic Estonians and other ethnic groups.

"Unlike the Lega, EKRE was an ethno-centric party from the beginning. It is also significant, that, in Estonia, there is a considerable ethnic minority, i.e., people of Russian ethnicity, and an ethnic majority, i.e., Estonians. In the case of Italy, there is no such divide, although at one point the Lega attempted to draw a contrast between the people of Padania and those in the rest of the country," Braghiroli commented.

He added, that, in the context of both, coronavirus vaccination roll outs and the EU-led Green Deal, both of which EKRE adopted skeptical stances towards, the party was able to downplay the ethnically exclusionary issues it had previously emphasized, in favor of those which transgress the ethnic divide.

"The prominence of these issues made it possible to create an opposition, which was not based on ethnic affiliation. EKRE went to Ida-Viru County with a pragmatic message, stressing that they share common goals (with the population). The criticism of vaccinations was clearly a transnational issue, it concerned all ethnic groups," said Braghiroli.

According to Braghiroli, voters in Ida-Viru County have been repeatedly disappointed by politics over the years. These feelings were exacerbated when the Center Party, which had been in power in the region for a long time, entered into a coalition government with EKRE.

The associate professor pointed out that, similar to the Lega in the south of Italy, EKRE tried to bring in politicians who had previously been successful in Ida-Viru County. "The Lega was very successful in recruiting important politicians into its ranks from the political landscape of southern Italy, however, EKRE was not so successful," he explained.

In doing so, EKRE had to juggle between two constituencies, taking into account the interests of the Russian-speaking population on the one hand, while also attempting to avoid disappointing their Estonian supporters on the other. "The fact that Estonia has two rather separate linguistic communities, allowing for somewhat different messages to be delivered to different voters, helped in this respect," said Braghiroli.

Braghiroli added, that, all things considered, EKRE's expansion into Ida-Viru County can be considered an achievement in its own right. "It was a significant attempt to include ethnic non-Estonians in the party's narrative. No other far-right party in the Baltic states has done this. In this sense, EKRE was the first to try and move away from its ethnic basis."

Searching for common goals

In light of Russia's war in Ukraine, this balancing act between different constituencies is even more difficult, as showing sympathy for Russia can quickly lead to electoral disenfranchisement, says Braghiroli.

He pointed out, that, while Salvini 's Lega has traditionally been pro-Putin, and EKRE is clearly not, there are some similarities between the positions presented by the two parties in relation to the situation created by the war.

"EKRE is critical of Estonia providing large-scale assistance to Ukraine, stressing that doing so,  is endangering Estonia's own national interests. All the other (Estonian) parties stress that aid to Ukraine must continue and should not be reduced. The Lega has been even more specific on this point, saying that by aiding Ukraine, (Italy) is undermining its own interests," Braghiroli explained.

He added that, broadly speaking, Russia's aggression in Ukraine has helped to create an increased sense of national unity. "Western societies are increasingly divided, and this is a problem, not only for Estonia. So, the most important thing is to reach the stage of formulating common goals, then we can discuss how to achieve them."

The study "Conservative populism in Italy and Estonia: playing the multicultural card and engaging –'domestic others'" by Stefano Braghiroli and his colleague Andrey Makarychev, Professor of Regional Political Studies at the University of Tartu, was published in the journal East European Politics here.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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