Inside the populist movement that is threatening an Italian Brexit.
By Darren Loucaides
Beppe Grillo of Italy’s Five Star Movement with supporters at Imola Autodrome on October 18, 2015. (Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)
What would it take for a foul-mouthed celebrity to start a movement with the potential to turn a country’s political establishment upside down? This isn’t just a question that America is dealing with — Italy has its own version of Donald Trump.
Founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009, the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) is edging ahead of Matteo Renzi’s governing Democratic Party (PD) in the polls. M5S is the latest in a wave of anti-establishment parties sweeping through Europe and threatening the survival of the European Union: The M5S movement wants to ditch the euro and could soon be leading the Eurozone’s third biggest economy down the Brexit path (let’s call it “Italeave”).
But who are they?
No one seems to know. The press has been rushing to extremes. The Spectator describes M5S as a “Scientology-style cult,” while TheNation recently called the movement the “heir to Mussolini’s fascists.”
“Politics in Italy is very polarized — you’re either left or right. M5S are the first ones that are not really either.”
“It’s not just the English-speaking press that hasn’t been able to explain who they are; neither have the Italian press,” says Gianluca Sgueo, a professor in media, activism, and democracy at New York University in Florence, and a policy analyst at the European Parliament. “The reason is that, in 40 years, we have never had a party that ‘doesn’t fit.’ Politics in Italy is very polarized — you’re either left or right. M5S are the first ones that are not really either.”
While some of Five Star Movement’s policies sound firmly left-wing, their leader has flirted with the language of the far right too. Sgueo, who has advised and worked with an M5S deputy on a law regarding transparency in lobbying, points to the party’s mixed views on abortion, and its Euroskepticism, as viewpoints more commonly associated with the right, while on other topics “they are totally to the left, so you can’t apply the standard left/right analysis.”
M5S may not be a partisan party in the classic sense. Basic policies include restoring funds that have been cut from public health and education; plans to clean up Italian corruption and improve quality of life through a guaranteed minimum income; a law against conflicts of interest, an in/out referendum on the euro, and the closure of Equitalia — Italy’s unpopular tax-collection agency. Many M5S policies relate to taxation, as the movement wants to reduce contributions from SMEs (small-and-medium-sized enterprises) and increase taxes on gambling, for example. The smorgasbord of current proposals can be found in an online document, “20 Punti Per Uscire Dal Buio”—though few Italians are aware these “20 ways out of the darkness” exist, in part because the Italian press spends so little time going through the M5S policy platform.
Part of what makes M5S difficult to define is that there aren’t real policy decrees that come down from the top of the party. “We don’t call it a party — it’s a movement,” says Francesco Berti, a Livorno-based activist for M5S who previously worked in Brussels as an assistant for a Member of European Parliament (MEP) from M5S. “We have no internal structure or hierarchy,” Berti confirms: Policies are decided online at a grassroots level, and then they go up to the representatives.
There’s a standard script for rising in the party: After a year involved with M5S, activists are given access to a software called “Rousseau.” Through it, they can discuss and vote on issues, and for candidates. Anyone with access to the software can put themselves forward as a candidate (they cannot have previously stood for another party or have a criminal conviction, and must promise to give half their salary to a fund for SMEs). Activists can use Rousseau to modify legislative proposals, and even propose laws to M5S representatives.
A law graduate who did his master’s dissertation in lobbying, Berti, 25, used the software to amend a law proposed by a Five Star Movement MEP on transparency in lobbying. “This really gave me a feeling of participating in the political process,” he says.
Berti recalls his baby steps into the Five Star Movement back in 2012. Looking for information, he found activists on Meetup, a website that enables people to connect with local groups. “There I saw citizens who had basically never done politics before, from all the social classes — engineers, householders, gardeners,” in stark contrast to other political organizations in Italy, where nepotism is rife. Most other parties barely have a website.
Still, despite hundreds of thousands of people attending the movement’s so-called V-Day rallies — “V” representing vaffanculo, Italian for “fuck off” — the mainstream Italian media failed to cover it until 2012, when M5S became impossible to ignore: Contesting its first national election in 2013, the movement came from nothing to win 26 percent of the vote, only four points behind PD (which now leads Italy’s coalition government).
“There are certain things she just doesn’t know. This freshness can be disruptive, but also in a positive way — she has no connection to the current political system.”
Other anti-establishment parties in Europe, like Spain’s Podemos, are experimenting with direct democracy, but few are as ambitious about it as M5S. “It’s something you can like or not like, but is having a direct impact,” according to Sgueo, who raises the example of the M5S councilor for culture in Livorno, who until six months ago had been a music teacher with no political experience. “There are certain things she just doesn’t know. This freshness can be disruptive, but also in a positive way — she has no connection to the current political system,” Sgueo says.
The movement deserves credit for engaging ordinary people in the democratic process. Yet for one reason or another, M5S gets little credit from the press. Part of the reason is that Grillo, the founder, is a controversial figure seen by many as a demagogue. The M5S architect recently joked that he was looking forward to when the new London mayor, Sadiq Khan, “blows himself up in front of Westminster.” These days, Grillo is said to be taking more of a backseat role in the movement, a far cry from the early days when he forbade representatives from going on talk shows.
That doesn’t mean activists are ashamed of him. Berti was at the event when Grillo made his by-now infamous comment about Khan and says it was taken out of context. (Berti says it was a comedic rather than political speech.)
In recent years, the media has taken aim at the movement, especially after M5S’s Virginia Raggi won the mayoralty of Rome in June.
It’s early days, but Raggi’s young mayoralty in Rome is already having to navigate choppy waters. An ex-lawyer elected as a clean-hands reformer, Raggi has admitted that she knew, when appointing Paola Muraro as one of her advisers, that Muraro was under investigation for abuse of office; meanwhile, several other M5S officials have resigned amid claims of internal frictions in the party. “They are perhaps showing that they are unprepared,” Sgueo says — and this lack of preparation has, at least for the moment, damaged the party’s national standing.
All eyes will soon be turning to Italy’s impending referendum on constitutional reform. In echoes of the United Kingdom’s David Cameron before the Brexit vote, the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has staked his career on the result of the plebiscite, expected in November, saying he will leave politics if he loses. He’s already regretting that promise, as the referendum is balanced on a knife-edge margin. If the result is “no,” there are likely to be early elections, in which M5S is well placed to become the biggest party. Even with Raggi’s bad start in Rome, the movement will probably retain the strong protest vote: “Those people are not going back to the traditional parties,” Sgueo quips. No wonder Renzi and his allies in the press have been sharpening their attacks on Raggi and M5S, which backs “no.” To say the least, in Italy right now, a lot is at stake.