Italy: The Five Star Movement Prospects for the Forthcoming Election

Five Star’s Municipal Elections Setback: Italy’s populist Five Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo (born 1948) suffered a significant electoral set back in the two round Italian local elections which took place on 11/25 June 2017. The Five Star Movement got through to the second round run-off in only 1 of the 25 largest cities where elections were taking place. In this city, Taranto in southern Italy, they lost in the run-off to the candidate from the centre-left Democratic Party. Five Star also failed to make headway in the northern city of Parma where the election was won by the incumbent Mayor, Frederico Pizzarotti (born 1973) as an independent candidate supported by the Effetto Parma list. Pizzarotto had first won Parma mayoralty as a Five Star candidate in May 2012, but had left the party in October 2016 after a series of clashes with Beppe Grillo and the party leadership. The Five Star candidate in Parma election came 4th with just 3.2% of the vote. Overall the Five Star Movement made modest gains across Italy securing 45 mayoralties up 8 on the 37 won in 2012. These results have been seen as a major blow to the Five Star Movement prior to the next Italian elections which are due to take place before May 2018, and possibly as early as the autumn of 2017. It has also been suggested that this electoral failure is part of a wider pan-European trend of faltering support for populist parties such as the National Front in France and UKIP in the United Kingdom.


The Origins and Development of the Five Star Movement: The Five Star Movement is a relative newcomer to Italian political life which over the seven years of its existence has, in spite of its internal contradictions, been able to establish itself as one of the country’s leading political forces. The Five Star Movement grew out of a network of discussion groups centred around the comedian Beppe Grillo’s blog. The movement was formally established on 4 October 2009. While Beppe Grillo was the public face of the Five Star Movement the ideas behind its formation and its strategic direction were provided by the IT entrepreneur, Gianroberto Casaleggio. The movement’s style was self-consciously modern, iconoclastic, and irreverent. It’s message was designed to appeal to voters alienated from the existing party structures and system.


Since its formation the internet has been central to the identity of the Five Movement. The Five Star Movement sees the internet as an essential instrument of democratisation rather than simply as a mechanism of communication. The Five Star Movement reasons that the internet has the potential to restore direct democracy and supersede representative democracy. The abandonment of representative democracy would of necessity also render obsolete the established political parties which the Five Star Movement sees as innately hierarchical, bureaucratic, and corrupt.


In parallel with this theoretical cyber-utopian emphasis on direct democracy there has, however, also been a strong element of authoritarianism in the actual organisation and running of the Five Star Movement. The Movement’s internal structures are widely seen as being opaque and non-transparent. At its inception the Five Star Movement was run as a partnership between Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio. After Casaleggio’s death in April 2016 a five member Directorate was created to run the party. In October 2016 the Directorate was dissolved and Beppe Grillo appointed himself as Political Head of the Movement. Davide Casaleggio, following the death of his father, Gianoberto, has taken over his role, providing key strategic input and direction for the Five Star Movement.  The familial element in the leadership of the Five Star Movement has also been demonstrated by the high profile role taken by Enrico Grillo, the nephew of Beppe Grillo, as vice-president of the movement. On a number of occasions high profile critics of the lack of internal democracy within the movement have, controversially, been expelled by Beppe Grillo. The Five Star Movement’s trade mark on=line polls on policy issues have also been set aside when these have come into conflict with positions taken by Beppe Grillo. Critical observers of the Five Star Movement have described it as having a ‘cult-like’ internal organisation.


The electoral rise of the Five Star Movement has been rapid. In the 2013 general election the Five Star Movement gained 25.1% of the vote and 109 parliamentary seats. A year later in the elections for the European Parliament the movement secured 21.2% of the vote and 17 MEP’s. In June 2016 the Five Star Movement made a major breakthrough when its candidates for mayor were elected in Turin and Rome. In Turin the successful candidate was Chiara Appendino (born 1984), a former member of the Left Ecology Freedom Movement, who had been elected as a Five Star local councillor in 2011. In Rome the winning Five Star candidate, Virginia Raggi (born 1978) was the first woman to be elected as mayor of the capital city. These urban electoral bastions were seen as an important potential springboard for Five Star’s campaign for the next general election. In late 2016 Matteo Renzi (born 1975), Italy’s Prime Minister and leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, called a referendum on proposals to reorganise Italy’s parliamentary structures. The Five Star Movement played a leading role in organising the opposition to Renzi’s proposals. When on 4 December 2016 Renzi’s proposals were rejected by 59% to 41% this was seen as a significant reflection of Five Star’s organisational and campaigning capacity. National opinion polls conducted in early 2017 put the Five Star Movement ahead of both its centre-left and centre-right rivals.


Five Star Moves Rightwards: The Five Star Movement has sought to eschew conventional left/right ideological categorisation. The Movement’s advocacy of an environmentalist agenda, sustainable development, and opposition to the privatisation of public services would appear to place its centre of gravity on the left of the political spectrum. Many of Five Star’s current leading activists are also defectors from leftist political parties. Alongside these established left-wing positions Beppe Grillo has increasingly been taking stances which align with those of right-wing populist leaders in other European countries. Beppe Grillo has adopted what is considered in an Italian context to be a Euro-sceptic position, advocating the holding of a referendum on Italy’s membership of the Euro-zone. He has also called for the implementation of stronger immigration controls. In January 2017 Beppe Grillo praised Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin describing them as ‘two strong statesmen.’ He also called for the removal of EU sanctions which had been introduced following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Grillo’s support for Trump and Putin provoked dissension within the Five Star Movement. Alessandro Di Battista (born 1978), a leading Five Star MP, stated that the movement was not: ‘a right-wing xenophobic party.’ He added that he would have voted Green in the US elections. Using language taken directly out of the Donald Trump playbook Grillo has also accused the mainstream media of propagating ‘fake news’ and called for the formations of ‘citizens juries’ which would determine which stories were true and which were false. Grillo’s statement was made in response to media reports that Five Star affiliated websites had been responsible for the dissemination of news stories favourable to Vladimir Putin and the Russian government. In the aftermath of the June 2017 local elections Beppe Grillo and other Five Star leaders have placed renewed emphasis on anti-immigrant themes and rhetoric.


Musical Chairs in the European Parliament: The unpredictable and opportunistic nature of Beppe Grillo’s was demonstrated in January 2017 by his actions to Five Star’s relations with groupings in the European parliament. Following the 2014 European elections the Five Star MEPs had joined the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group led by Nigel Farage the UKIP leader. On 8 January 2017, however, Beppe Grillo announced that he was holding an on-line poll of Five Star members asking whether the Movement should leave the EFDD and align itself with the pro-European Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe – ALDE. In the on-line poll 78.5% of Five Star members participating voted in favour of the proposal to join the ALDE. On 9 January Beppe Grillo wrote to Nigel Farage stating that the Five Star Movement was leaving the EFDD group. His letter began: Dear Nigel, Our paths have taken a different route.’ Nigel Farage responded by accusing Beppe Grillo of ‘defecting to  the Euro-fanatic establishment.’ The fact that the departure of the Five Star Movement’s MEPs would have left the EFDD without sufficient members to form an official group within the European parliament may have been a significant source of anxiety for Nigel Farage. The Five Star Movement’s migration into the ranks of the ALDE soon, however, ran into trouble. Although Guy Verhofstadt, the head of the ALDE, had been sympathetic towards Five Star’s decision to join the group other ALDE members had objected. They stated that Beppe Grillo’s Euro-sceptic views were out of line with their pro-European ethos. Faced with the prospect that the Five Star MEPs might be left unaffiliated to any parliamentary group Beppe Grillo decided that they should instead return to the EFDD. Farcically after several days of manoeuvring by Bepe Grillo the Five Star MEP’s had ended up back where they started.


Five Star Fails to Shine in Local Government:  More serious. perhaps for the reputation of Five Star amongst the Italian electorate, however, has been the record and actions of Virginia Raggi, who was elected as  mayor of Rome in June 2016. On being elected Virginia Raggi had stated that: ‘We will work to introduce a new alphabet and words such as merit, transparency, legality and solidarity after years of darkness and abandonment.’ Virginia Raggi soon, however, demonstrated that she lacked the political experience and administrative capacity to deal with the running of Rome’s city government. By the end of the summer Raggi was facing increasing complaints both from the public and from within the administration. In September five leading members of te city government resigned complaining about lack of coherence within Raggi’s administration. In December Raffaele Marra, the head of personnel in the city government, was arrested in connection with allegedly corrupt business deals dating back to 2013. In January 2017 Virginia Raggi  came under investigation herself for alleged abuse of office in  relation to the appointment of Renato Marra, the brother of Raffaele Marra, as head of the city government’s tourism department. In response to the investigation Virginia Raggi  stated  that: ‘I am very serene and full of confidence in the judiciary, as always.’ It has currently, as of July 2017, yet to be confirmed whether charges will be brought against Raggi. In addition to these legal issues Virginia Raggi also faced major challenges in relation to Rome’s longstanding problems with its infrastructure and public services. In July 2017 Bruno Rota, head of the city’s Atac public transport company, resigned after only three months in that position, complaining about the poorly motivated work force, decaying infrastructure, and lack of resources for investment. At the same time Acea, the city water company threatened amidst an on-going drought, to bring in water rationing. They were only persuaded to back down after pressure was exerted by Virginia Raggi and Beatrice Lorenzin, the Italian Health Minister. Polling conducted in the summer of 2017 amongst residents of the city showed that 70% of those polled gave a negative assessment of Raggi’s record as mayor. These failings of municipal governance in Italy’s capital city made a poor advert for the Five Star Movement in the run-up to the June 2017 local elections.


Prospects for the Five Star Movement: The Five Star leadership have been keen to emphasise that the June local election results do not represent a ‘crisis’ for their movement. Beppe Grillo has drawn attention to the fact that while expectations may have been higher Five Star did succeed in increasing the number of mayoralties under its control. It is also, and probably more significantly, the case that national opinion polls continue to show the Five Star Movement neck and neck with Renzi’s Democratic Party. Polls conducted since the local elections have shown Five Star and the Democratic Party polling between 25-30%, and regularly changing places as the highest polling party. The right-wing parties, Forza Italia led by Silvio Berlusconi (born 1936) and the Northern League led by Matteo Salvini (born 1973), who did well contesting the local elections in coalition, are both currently recording opinion poll ratings of around 13%. Differences between these parties, in terms of leadership and political/ideological direction, however, make it unlikely that this coalition will be renewed in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. The Five Star Movement’s overall national opinion poll rating does not appear to have been significantly dented either by Beppe Grillo’s erratic leadership or by its on-going problems of governance in Italy’s capital city. The recent statements on immigration by the Five Star leadership may be opportunistic but they also tap into a significant concern amongst the Italian public over the continuing movement of migrants into Italy from North Africa. This may benefit the Five Star Movement electorally in the run-up to the forthcoming parliamentary elections. In the longer term, however, the clear ideological fissures existing within the Five Star Movement may grow in importance. This may particularly be the case if the Five Star Movement comes close to political power on the national level and is compelled to consolidate its currently somewhat incoherent political identity.             



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