Italy’s Left-Wing Populists Won’t Stop the Far-Right. They’ll Strengthen It.

The Five Star Movement’s most prominent leftist, Alessandro Di Battista, is returning to politics, but don’t expect him to reverse the government’s anti-immigrant agenda.

Italy's populist Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio (R) with party members Roberto Fico (L) and Alessandro Di Battista (C) after an election campaign meeting in Piazza del Popolo in Rome on March 2, 2018.
Italy's populist Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio (R) with party members Roberto Fico (L) and Alessandro Di Battista (C) after an election campaign meeting in Piazza del Popolo in Rome on March 2, 2018.

When Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, closed the country’s ports to a Doctors Without Borders ship carrying 600 African migrants rescued at sea last summer, many progressives inside the Five Star Movement were embarrassed.

Five Star is a nebulous, populist party that defines itself as neither left nor right, which received most of its votes from an electorate formerly associated with the left and now finds itself governing Italy in coalition with an unapologetically far-right nativist party—Salvini’s the League.

In its early days, Five Star campaigned on progressive issues, such as the fight against the privatization of public water and the promotion of cycling lanes. In the past few years the party has moved to the right, but it still has liberal-leaning politicians in its ranks—and to them, the thought of leaving 600 desperate people stuck at sea was too much to stomach. Some, like Chamber of Deputies leader Roberto Fico, discreetly criticized Salvini’s choice. Others, like the Livorno Mayor Filippo Nogarin, volunteered to take the migrants in.

But not Alessandro Di Battista.

The party’s most famous face associated with progressive causes, sometimes nicknamed “the Five Star Che Guevara” for his personal obsession with the Argentinian revolutionary and for his love of anti-capitalist struggles in Latin America, didn’t think twice about siding with the government. In a popular Facebook post, Di Battista attacked Salvini’s critics, accusing them of being, of all things, indifferent to the suffering of African people. Those who side with rescue ships are “hypocrites” who don’t care about the “root causes that are driving Africans out of their home countries,” and nongovernmental organizations are part of a human trafficking scheme to exploit poor migrants, he wrote.

On that occasion, he did what he’s best at: defending right-wing policies from a seemingly leftist position. While Di Battista might use leftist rhetoric to make his arguments, his political objectives are very much in line with the nativist populism of the far-right.

At the moment, Di Battista holds no official position in the party, nor in the government. In fact, he took a break from politics and is now out of the country. But he will be back soon. And he’s still perceived as one of the leaders of the Five Star Movement. Some analysts believe he represents the party’s future—possibly heading the party when the era of Luigi Di Maio, the current leader and deputy prime minister, is over. Others expect him to run as Rome’s next mayor.

The 40-year-old former member of parliament is now traveling across Latin America with his French-Algerian girlfriend and their toddler son. The family is visiting border towns in Mexico and native villages in Chiapas and Guatemala, while Di Battista documents their trip on Facebook, via Instagram, and with a series of dispatches published by the pro-government newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano and the streaming platform Loft. On Sunday, Di Battista announced he will be heading back to Italy in December: “I didn’t imagine I would have missed the [political] battle so much,” he said in a video message that was screened at the party’s annual festival in Rome’s Circus Maximus.

Di Battista announced his decision not to run for re-election soon after he became a father in late 2017. The purpose of his trip, he later wrote on Facebook, was to “sow freedom and happiness” for his young son. But he keeps commenting on political affairs on social media, where he enjoys a large following, and on interviews with Italian TV: “He’s still an opinion-maker, a politician, and a showman,” David Allegranti, a political commentator at Il Foglio newspaper, said in a telephone conversation. (Di Battista didn’t reply to Foreign Policy’s requests for an interview.)

Before becoming a Five Star activist, Di Battista was an aid worker. He worked for Caritas, a Catholic nonprofit, building a public library in Guatemala, and for Amka, an NGO fighting child malnutrition and promoting microcredit, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2010, he was hired by Casaleggio Associati, the web-marketing firm closely linked to the Five Star movement, to begin research for a book about criminal gangs in Central America.

In 2013, he ran for office in Rome and was elected to the Parliament—it was after the elections that he began gaining national visibility, emerging as one of the Movement’s “young faces,” together with Di Maio. Di Battista’s popularity truly exploded in the summer of 2016, when he toured Italy on a motorbike campaigning against the referendum to reform the constitution promoted by then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the failure of which would trigger Renzi’s fall.

Di Battista often refers to his past as an aid worker: In his 2016 memoir, he wrote that he became interested in politics while living among former Marxist guerrilla fighters in a Guatemalan cooperative called Nuevo Horizonte. His Facebook avatar is a headshot of himself with an African child. Although he rejects the distinction between left and right (he calls them “late 18th-century categories”), everything in Di Battista’s style exudes references to the left. He lists Antonio Gramsci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Eduardo Galeano as sources of inspiration and appears enamored with the rhetoric of the “No Global” radical left of the 1990s. In 2013, he gave a speech in Parliament to commemorate Che Guevara, and he often quotes the Zapatistas, the Marxist rebels in Mexico whose cause became popular with the European left two decades ago.

What sets him apart from other left-leaning Five Star figures is that Di Battista is “organic to the party” and comfortable with the direction it has taken, Matteo Pucciarelli, a political analyst at La Repubblica daily, told me. Unlike some activists of the Movement’s old days, who are at odds with the party’s right turn, Di Battista came to prominence after the Five Star movement had already begun to embrace right-wing populism and now serves as “a fig leaf aimed at left-leaning voters,” Pucciarelli said.

Di Battista is, in his own way, honest. His combination of third-world rhetoric and an oblivious attitude toward xenophobia might seem contradictory, but it has its own bizarre coherency. His worldview could be summarized as follows: Capitalism is bad and is hurting poor countries the most; we therefore need to support the rebel movements of the global south (assuming they still exist), rather than helping those who flee to the global north, and if this requires allying with xenophobes in Europe, so be it.

His mixture of third-world anti-imperialism and anti-immigration rhetoric might seem unusual, but in Italy it has a long pedigree.Rossobrunismo,” or red-brownism, is a mixture of neofascist and neocommunist political thought that in Italy dates back to the 1970s and is now is gaining wider traction. (The philosopher and media personality Diego Fusaro is a well-known rossobruno close to the Five Star Movement.) While Di Battista isn’t exactly a rossobruno, his contention that identitarianism and third-worldism are compatible fits neatly with that ideology—and also happens to be popular with Five Star supporters.

Allegranti, the political analyst, describes this mixture as the “Fascist-communist soul of the Five Stars.” Di Battista sees no problem with the Mussolini-era nostalgia re-emerging in Italy: “The pseudo-left sees fascism everywhere … even in the houses where you can find wine bottles with the picture of Mussolini,” he wrote in Il Fatto, suggesting that owning Mussolini memorabilia is just fine. He himself comes from a right-wing family and in his memoir recalls how his father, Vittorio, a self-described fascist, often spoke admiringly of Giorgio Almirante, the former Social Republic fighter who founded the neofascist party Movimento Sociale.

The Five Star Movement is going through a tumultuous time. Despite being the largest party in the Parliament and the majority shareholder in the governing coalition, it has been largely eclipsed since it joined forces with the League in June. Salvini has monopolized media attention, making both Di Maio and Giuseppe Conte, the independent prime minister, look like second-rate figures.

The League has imposed Salvini’s agenda on both immigration and tax policies. The League wants to pass a “tax amnesty,” or condono fiscale, for those who are lagging behind their tax payments for the period between 2000 and 2010: If passed, any amount due to the government below 1,000 euros would be cancelled. This would primarily benefit small entrepreneurs, who constitute the League’s core voters. No one likes it in the Five Star Movement, but Salvini is forcing them to fall in line. This is proving especially damaging for Di Maio’s credibility. The League has now surpassed Five Star in polls, and Salvini could push for early elections, taking advantage of Di Maio’s current weakness.

In short, Five Star’s leader is losing credibility, not so much because he is governing with the far-right but because he’s giving the impression of letting his junior partner eat him alive. The Five Star Movement is also facing a local crisis in Rome, where the party’s embattled mayor, Virginia Raggi, is facing trial for having submitted a false statement to an anti-corruption official. The sentence is expected in early November, and, if she’s found guilty, she could be forced to resign. Di Battista seems the ideal candidate to succeed both Raggi and Di Maio, in case of early elections.

Unlike Di Maio, he’s not involved with the coalition. And, unlike Di Maio, who is approaching the party’s two-term limit, he’s still allowed to run for Parliament. Di Battista’s critics accuse him of having skipped the 2018 elections precisely so that he could let Di Maio get “burned.” But he isn’t that Machiavellian; his desire to travel, enjoy time with his family, and take a break from professional politics appeared genuine, especially because it came right after he became a father. Moreover, Di Battista and Di Maio have never been rivals: they have always worked as a team, the former courting voters from the left and the latter courting voters from the right.

Indeed, if Di Battista wins a seat in the government, it would likely be due to the collapse of the League-Five Star alliance, leading to a new coalition or new elections, so he would not need to please Salvini. If the alliance breaks, Five Star could try form a coalition with the Democratic Party. And Di Battista would be the ideal leader in the not so unlikely event of a total collapse of the Democrats: With the closest thing to a center-left party gone, Five Star will want to focus on draining even more votes from the left, a specialty of Di Battista’s.

Some analysts thought that, by allying with the far-right League, the Five Star Movement would lose its appeal among voters who came from the left. But that hasn’t happened. Indeed, Di Battista is extremely popular with Five Star voters who come from the left, many of whom are either xenophobic themselves or don’t see xenophobia as a big deal. It is often forgotten that there are plenty of left-wingers who don’t like foreigners. As the analyst Pucciarelli put it: “There are a lot of former Communist Party voters who hate black people.” And even among those who don’t share this xenophobia, it’s not a deal-breaker; using anti-immigrant rhetoric might cause them to raise an eyebrow, but it won’t necessarily take their votes away. Immigration is a topic that moves voters from the right to the far-right; those who actually hate immigrants tend to seek anti-immigrant parties, not parties of the left.

If Di Battista joins the government or becomes the mayor of Rome, there is likely to be a more left-wing flavor to the government—more cooperation with African countries, more environmentalism, and strong anti-war stances. Whether this translates from rhetoric into actual left-wing policy will depend on public opinion and political alliances, which will dictate how aggressively he can pursue his desired policies on international aid and environmentalism.

But one thing won’t change: the government’s unapologetic nativism. The “Five Star Che Guevara” may return to prominence, but he’s unlikely to do anything to change Italy’s harsh immigration policy. If anything, he will reinforce it.

Anna Momigliano is a journalist based in Milan. Twitter: @annamomi

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