A wave of anti-establishment protest has swept the western democracies. These political protest movements have taken both a left and right wing form, shaking up the old traditional parliamentary party systems in many countries and rocking the two party system in the United States. In Italy, Movimento 5 Stelle or the 5 Star Movement, created by comedian Beppe Grilllo is the manifestation of the discontent with the traditional parties. But can such movements govern once they take power? What is their long term future? Nicola Benvenuti writes from Italy on M5S.
The Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle or M5S) which celebrated its 7th birthday on October 4, is one of the most important developments in the chaotic Italian political landscape. It is a political formation that in a few years has matched in electoral strength the leading Italian party, the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico PD), and succeded in burying the bipolar scheme (Center Right Popolo della Liberta” of Berlusconi and Center left Partitio Democratico of Walter Veltroni) that dominated Italian politics in the 1990’s. M5S was founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, the owner of the brand and of the Beppe Grillo blog, which functions as the true voice of the movement. He is known for the biting satire of his one-man show against the Italian economic and political elite. His co-founder is Gianroberto Casaleggio, owner of a digital strategies consulting company (a mix that some say could hide a conflict of interest) and “guru” of the web. Casaleggio designed the M5S as an example of collective intelligence or crowd politics.
M5S was created with a “flat” structure”, devoid of hierarchies (each person is seen as an equal), in which Casaleggio and especially Beppe Grillo play the role of “noble leaders”, guarantors of the principles and the spirit of the movement, but not directly involved in politics.
In fact, in addition to challenging Italian and European politics, the M5S has targeted an Italian democracy based on parties which are considered an expression of the establishment and the bearers of bureaucracy and corruption, whereas M5S is counter-posed as democracy of the network based on egalitarianism and direct democracy.
The various analytical threads that underpin the culture of M5S, hold the negative view that “interprets politics and society as a tangle of special interests unmentionable and largely illegal, fueling the idea of a country prey to Mafia malignancies and endemic corruption ” (Michele Serra, staff writer of the newspaper “La Repubblica”), a vision that functions to hold together often conflicting aspirations, objectives and general values.
This approach is rooted in the economic and moral decline of Italy with a resulting crisis of political parties and national politics because of the growing role of supranational bodies and the blackmailing power of multinational organizations. Additionally, the weakness of European Union policy and its inability to revive development and take on complex issues like immigration, unemployment, the crisis of the countries of the southern Mediterranean, etc. This situation has stalled the Italian left which is on the defensive on the concept of Europe. The Berlusconi right also appears divided and disjointed in the absence of the “old leader”. This has solidified the crisis of old models of government and favors non-traditional political formations. Among these the Northern League (“Lega Nord”) of Salvini follows the French LePen model without much success, while at the moment M5S has experienced large growth rates.
M5S’s uncompromising criticism of the distortions of Italian politics and its support for the most irrational impulses of the right and left, has worked very well to forge consensus. In the latest municipal elections M5S won the mayoralty of major cities such as Turin and Rome thanks to a runoff ballot between PD and M5S, the two biggest vote getters. Thus the left and much of the right voted together in the runoff against the incumbent administration of the PD.
But now, everyone is waiting for the proof in the pudding for M5S as a governing party. In particular, can M5S accomplish the restoration of Rome, the city where the center-right administration of Alemanno (Here and Here) has fostered crime and malfeasance in the process polluting all the parties.
In fact, although the M5S had a considerable presence in the national parliament, and here and there the mayoralty of medium-sized cities, the movement’s growth has not been accompanied by the construction of a reliable and knowledgeable management team. The organizational structure is dominated by informal “meetups” and decisions made by the network, all on the electronic platform of Casaleggio Associates which Casaleggio manages with proprietary logic (starting with data on subscribers). This process has clearly not favored an effective selection of executives, while the in-determined politics, contrary to traditional political divisions and fueled by anti-political attitudes has hindered the growth of skills and expertise. No wonder then that the concrete policy of some mayors, although positive and effective, is often up against the intransigence of 5 Stars and Bepe Grillo.
Pizzarotti, the Mayor of Parma, recently collided with Grillo and was suspended by the M5S. The reasons are perhaps attributable to local choices, eg. Pizzarotti having supported the construction of an incinerator (which was strongly opposed by M5S) but the excuse was that the Mayor had not been transparent about an investigation of his appointments to the Royal Theater, an investigation that resulted in his acquittal.
Further nobody understands under what regulations someone can be suspended since the movement does not have the structure of a hated party. Nor does it have a structure for establishing legitimate internal decision paths and there are no strict limits, and no penalties, for violators. The suspension could be sanctioned by a vote of members in the network, but since Casaleggio Associates holds absolute control of the software and platform management, nobody knows what the actual results were, and how many participated. On October 4, Mayor Pizzarotti announced that he was abandoning the movement, accusing his former colleagues of unpreparedness, superficiality and even cowardice.
But the most explosive situation has been in Rome, where the M5S Mayor elect, Virginia Raggi, has not been able to form a government while city debt is exploding. The city M5S directorate (this is a national directorate delegated by M5S to help Major Raggi) composed of parliamentarians Di Maio, Di Battista, Fico, and Ruocco selected by Grillo at the end of 2014 (and confirmed by a network vote with the usual obscure procedures) was divided on everything, but without any “transparency” (another watchword of M5S) in their political motives. Citing incompatibility with the closest people to the Mayor, the most reliable and expert personalities designated by Raggi and even top City administrators, resigned. Raggi has been unable to hold together the different components of her majority, and has insisted on defending questionable collaborators, such as the deputy Paola Muraro (hit by an investigation for complicity with the speculators who made money on waste/recycling policy). Further she has been incapable of meeting the essential financial deadlines of the municipality (for which the Treasurer, Stefano Fermante resigned).
Everything is managed in complete opacity and a lack of loyalty and respect for voters. The only postive position taken, one useful in calming the movement, was the refusal to support the candidacy of Rome for the 2020 Olympics, fearing the corruption that would arise in promoting such a spectacle. The fractures and mutual misteps were such that the movement has distanced itself from Mayor Raggi. The role of the M5S directorate has been greatly reduced, and at the recent meeting of Palermo M5S (October 2), Grillo said he was “head” of the whole movement.
It is too early to determine whether this is the beginning of the decline of this political formation that has always claimed not to want to have anything to do with any other party or political group. From what we have seen it seems clear that the M5S is not the solution. However all the concerns about the influence that M5S could still have remain (October polls on the electoral strength of the Italian political protagonists show an unchanged success for the M5S). While the Renzi PD fails to consolidate a government, too many parties, right and left, look at the deteriorating political and economic situation as an opportunity for their own political relaunch from the crisis of the PD. And so the referendum on the constitutional reform of 4th December proposed by Renzi will play a decisive role in the Italian politics.