The populist Italian Lega from ethno-regionalism to radical right-wing nationalism: backsliding gender-equality policies with a little help from the anti-gender movement

Author: Alessia Donà1
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  • 1 University of Trento, Italy
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The Italian election of 4 March 2018 resulted in a ‘populist hurricane’. Two populist parties, the Five Star Movement (M5S), led by Luigi di Maio (32.7 percent), and the Lega, led by Matteo Salvini (17.4 percent), won a majority of seats in Parliament. Meanwhile, the two mainstream parties – Forza Italia and the Democratic Party – suffered electoral decline, securing 14 percent and 18.7 percent share of the vote, respectively. The populist coalition government emerged after a long process of negotiation and the signing of a contract for the Governo del Cambiamento1 (‘government of change’) between the leaders of the two populist parties. The government was formed on 1 June under the leadership of Giuseppe Conte, with both Di Maio and Salvini serving as deputy prime ministers, as well as Labour Minister and Interior Minister, respectively. The contract represents the core document agreed by both parties and specifies a list of issues to be included on the political agenda, and upon which the survival of the government depends. Within the document, the ideological influence of the smaller party appeared clearly, acting as a counterbalance to the large number of M5S members in key government positions. After one year in government, Lega became the leading party in Italy, as confirmed by the results of the European Parliament elections held on 28 May 2019: Lega achieved the highest result in its own history (34 percent) and M5S the lowest (17 percent), while Forza Italia collapsed (8 percent), the Democratic Party survived (22 percent) and the far-right Brothers of Italy increased their share of the vote (7 percent).

Does this political context mean that the feminist project is under threat (as happened in other Central and Eastern European countries governed by far-right populist parties)? Put simply, the answer is ‘yes’. Two remarkable events evidence this: first, the presentation of the commonly known ‘Pillon Bill’ (after the name of the Lega Senator who proposed it) in Parliament on 1 August 2018; and, second, the organization of the World Congress of Families (WCF) held in Verona on 28–30 March 2019.2 The Pillon Bill aims to reduce women’s and children’s rights in family matters by legally restoring traditional male predominance and to nullify in fact the divorce right by imposing the compulsory (and costly) service of family mediation in case of separation. Pillon, (un)surprisingly, works as a family mediator himself and is a leading figure of the Family Day and of intransigent Catholicism. At the time of writing, the Bill is under review in the Senate Committee on Justice. The WCF is the international pro-family meeting periodically organized around the world and represents a Christian Right movement. In Italy, it was officially sponsored by Lega Minister of the Family Lorenzo Fontana – a politician known for his anti-abortion positions and his claims that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT)  people, the liberal European Union and immigration are threatening the Italian Catholic identity. In both cases, the Lega was the key political player in advocating for the defence and the promotion of the ‘natural’ heterosexual and native family with children (excluding migrant and minority families, as well as contesting abortion law).

It is not by chance, then, that the final text of the ‘Verona Declaration’,3 adopted at WCF XIII on 31 March 2019, evidenced common features between the anti-gender movement’s demands and Lega’s populist 2018 electoral manifesto, namely: the ‘natural patriarchal family’ should be recognized as the ‘fundamental unit of the society’ and ‘holder of moral and national values’; there is a need to support ‘Italian families’ with generous policies to contrast the current demographic and moral crises; it should be the exclusive role of (heterosexual) parents to choose an education for their children in accordance with their values; and alternative measures to abortion are necessary in order to preserve the ‘natural and moral order’ of the traditional native family. The 2018 government contract itself included these issues (reform of the family law, increased measures to support motherhood and limitations of welfare benefits to ‘deserving families’, that is, excluding migrant and minority families) after members of Catholic organizations were elected to Parliament as Lega representatives, following the 2018 general election, in order to seal the alliance between the anti-gender movement and the far-right party in Italy. Other less high-profile but significant decisions have also been adopted: in September 2018, a directive by Lega Minister of Education Bussetti established the primary role of the family vis-a-vis the school in children’s (sex) education; and in April 2019, Minister of Interior Salvini deleted ‘parent 1’ and ‘parent 2’ on ID documents in order to restore the more traditional ‘mother’ and ‘father’. Moreover, across (northern) regions of Italy, initiatives were locally adopted by Lega politicians against so-called ‘gender ideology’, which - according to them - will destroy the traditional gender binary by going ‘beyond the natural complementarity of men and women’, and thus weakening the basis of the ‘natural family’ and the ‘moral order’ of the nation itself.

Since Matteo Salvini became its leader in 2013, Lega has undergone a deep ideological transformation in order to adapt the party’s agenda and discourse according to the changing circumstances of Italian (and European) politics. This led to a shift from the ethno-regionalism of the early years to the current right-wing nationalism based on the defence of the Italian nation, Christian identity and the traditional family. To conclude, Italy is governed by a typical populist radical-right party, with Christianity deployed as an identity marker. The party’s radicalisation has been visible in many ways: first, Salvini’s use of religious symbols (that is, swearing on the Gospel and kissing a rosary) to reinforce the community’s identity; second, the definition of a policy agenda that focuses on the traditional family and the promotion of natality; and, third, the adoption of populist positions designed to defend ‘us, the good common people’, against ‘them, the others’, who are accused of damaging the country’s ‘ethnic pureness’ and ‘natural morality’ . Needless to say, gender-equality and social justice measures are backsliding after the big electoral success of Lega, which has brought about an authoritative and nativist turn in Italian politics.



The text of the contract (in Italian) is available at:


The programme of the event is available at:

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

  • 1 University of Trento, Italy

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