The Gender Politics of Populist Parties in Southern Europe

In contemporary politics, the landscape surrounding gender politics is undergoing a notable transformation. This shift is marked by the emergence of opposing alliances centered on issues such as women’s and LGBTQI+ rights, gender equality, and sexual and reproductive rights. As gender politics assumes a more prominent role in mainstream political discourse, political parties are increasingly addressing these issues through specific ideological frameworks.

This research delves into the intricate dynamics of cross-national and intra-ideological patterns pertaining to the framing and significance of gender politics within populist political parties in Italy and Spain. While existing research has uncovered diverse stances within both left-wing and right-wing populism when it comes to gender politics, less we know about how they compare to each other. Our objective is to explore how right-wing and left-wing populist parties, despite their shared people-centric and anti-elitist positions, approach the complex issue of gender politics. This polarization highlights the coexistence of conservative and progressive agendas within the realm of populist politics.

The starting premise of our analysis is populism’s ‘empty heart’. Populists’ emphasis on the moral superiority of the people and their aversion of political elites can be combined with different political ideologies and, thus, deliver different understandings of gender politics. The tension between populism’s majoritarian tendencies and the principles of pluralism, particularly in the context of LGBTQI+ and reproductive rights, are absolutely key to appreciate the progressive or regressive essence of populist gender agendas and the potential political dynamics deriving from it. Research in this field has primarily focused on the backlash against gender politics by populist radical-right parties, which often align with traditional family values and oppose developments like same-sex marriage and expanded reproductive rights. These stances stem from nativist ideals and are based on exclusionary and ethnocentric identities. Notably, the populist radical right does not represent a homogeneous set when it comes to gender-related issues: there are exceptions, like the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, that endorse liberal views on sexuality – instrumentally, it is worth adding, in its war against multiculturalism and Muslim minorities. Research is certainly sparser for other types of populist actors. In principle, the populist radical left and nominally progressive actors should engage in an inclusive vision of the marginalized and excluded, encompassing gender and ethnic minorities as well as poorer strata of society. The real-world declension of the populist politics of gender however suggest that the picture can be quite composite on the left – and that patriarchal and conservative views can challenge previously held assumptions.

To provide a comprehensive analysis, we examined the frames employed by populist parties in Italy and Spain across four critical dimensions of party-based gender politics: cultural, legal, political, and socioeconomic. Our goal was to evince how populist parties distributed along the left-right ideological spectrum contest the politics of gender, ultimately affecting the configuration of political dynamics in the two South European countries.

One prominent finding is that Spanish populist parties elaborate more on gender-related issues in both the depth and breadth of frames. Notably, this variation is evident in the approaches of the populist radical-left Podemos and the populist radical-right VOX in Spain. These two parties occupy opposing ends of the gender politics spectrum, with Podemos emphasizing gender equality and feminism and VOX promoting pro-life and familism. Conversely, Italian parties, including Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), the Lega, and the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), have adopted less radical and detailed positions in their manifestos, indicating a certain detachment from momentous developments unfolding at the non-institutional level (i.e. through the mobilizations of Non Una di Meno).

Our enquiry also reveals differences within and across populist parties, resulting in varying gender-related framing strategies. There is an internal diversity that seems to characterize the populist radical right. For example, the Lega has moved towards nativist and authoritarian territories under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, and has integrated gender aversion and patriarchal frames into its ideology, albeit to a lesser extent than FdI and VOX. When considering the ideologically ambiguous M5S, our analysis indicated a gradual inclusion of liberal frames within its platform. Although these frames are neither extensively elaborated nor highly salient, they suggest that M5S may serve as a functional equivalent to a left-libertarian party, at least in theory and with regard to gender politics. However, in practice, the party’s behavior within national institutions has been rather erratic, exposing, on the one hand, the intrinsic ideological ambiguity that has defined the early phases of its political lifecycle and, on the other, the possible acceptance of the Italian political status quo, which has proven refractory to gender politics.

Furthermore, we looked at the different dimensions of gender politics and how populist parties engage with them. For instance, Podemos places considerable emphasis on framing gender in political terms (i.e. how these issues are linked to institutional politics and representation) and often resorts to a socioeconomic framing of these issues (i.e. how gender is considered in connection to welfare and the creation of wealth in society). Interestingly, all populist parties converge on economic arguments, irrespective of their distinct ideological foundations. This convergence may indicate a tendency to prioritize “class-based gender equality issues” regardless of discrete political orientations and goals. Our analysis also acknowledged the instrumentalization of education as a means to attack gender ideology by the populist radical right. Interestingly, femonationalist frames, prevalent in nativist campaigns across Europe, are absent from the official programmatic documents of the populist radical-right parties analyzed.

In conclusion, our research highlights the existence of competing master frames in gender politics: a “familist” framing embraced by traditionalist actors who advocate natural family values and a “liberal-feminist” framing advocated by progressive forces, which focuses on mainstreaming gender equality policies.

Looking forward, we would argue that the empirical evidence advanced about the inclusive and progressive character of the populist radical left on gender-related issues challenges the common notion that populism is inherently illiberal and, thus, detrimental to the rights of at least some portions of society. This should encourage a deeper and more critical exploration of the populist (radical) left, and a problematization of its relationship with pluralism and liberal democracy. The presence of parties like Podemos, advocating for the emancipation of minorities and civil rights, provides first elements to nuance the ideological and policy aspects of this relationship. Without questioning populism’s overarching dichotomy between “the people” and “the elites”, it begs to better qualify its tension with concepts such as pluralism and (liberal) democracy, making these specifics contingent on individual cases and their contextual factors.

Anna Lavizzari & Andrea L. P. Pirro

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