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Understanding Italy's Five Star Movement | The World Weekly

In the shadow of Mount Vesuvius sits Pomigliano d’Arco, an industrial town best known for housing a huge Fiat factory. It takes about half an hour to reach Pomigliano from central Naples, along a road which swiftly swaps striking views of the Baio di Napoli for an urban sprawl characteristic of so many southern Italian cities. Among the 40,000 or so people who call Pomigliano’s narrow streets home is a man newly-minted as the most powerful figure in Italian politics.

Luigi di Maio, the fresh-faced 31-year-old leader of Five Star Movement, known in Italy as the insurgent anti-establishment Movimento Cinque Stelle that has catapulted itself to the forefront of Italian politics, was born in Avellino, a town some fifty kilometres inland from Pomigliano. Yet it was in Pomigliano, whose residents affectionately refer to him as Giggino, that Mr. Di Maio took the first steps on a political journey which has brought him within touching distance of the Palazzo Chigi.

It made sense, then, that Giggino returned to Pomigliano the day after Five Star Movement (M5S) seized 33% of the vote in a fraught general election at the start of March - the most votes a European party has ever won when contesting its second election. "I felt the need to come to you and hug you right away," Mr. Di Maio told a sea of yellow-clad M5S supporters in Pomigliano’s central piazza, where the party won 65% of the vote. "We have made history."

Grillini

Wherever you stand, M5S’s story is an incredible one. Officially it was founded in 2009 by Beppe Grillo, a firebrand comedian and blogger, and Gianroberto Casaleggio, a Milanese entrepreneur and web strategist widely considered the brains of the operation. Yet it was in the pages of Mr. Grillo’s eponymous blog that M5S was truly conceived some years earlier.

In 2005, Mr. Grillo began urging followers - Grillini, as they’re known in Italy - of his blog to get together and discuss ideas about how to make the world a better place. These meetings soon snowballed, culminating in 2007 with Vaffanculo Day (‘Fuck Off Day’), a large-scale public meetup in Bologna that aimed to mobilise support for a new transparency law.

“Nobody expected them to be successful at the time,” Lorenzo Codogno, former chief economist and director general at the Italian Treasury, told The World Weekly. “But, little by little, they created a movement.”

Within two years, Mr. Grillo and Mr. Casaleggio had launched M5S and with it, a remarkable set of policies. Foremost among them was the concept of ‘direct democracy’, which aimed to return power to the voter. M5S members choose the movement’s parliamentary candidates in Italian and European elections and select its manifesto online. Mr. Di Maio himself, with little more than an undergraduate degree under his belt, was selected as the M5S prime ministerial candidate in an online primary in which he took 82% of the vote after Mr. Grillo had stepped aside.

Professor Codogno, now a Visiting Fellow at the LSE European Institute, says the result “is probably the most detailed platform of all Italy’s political parties”, albeit one which is “a bit of a patchwork”.

On immigration for example, M5S leans heavily to the right. Last year, Mr. Di Maio demanded “an immediate stop to the sea-taxi service” that has seen some 620,000 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean and brought to Italy by both NGOs and the state in the past four years. In the European Parliament, M5S caucuses with the staunchly anti-immigration UKIP.

Yet M5S has also advocated for the introduction of a universal basic income of at least €780 ($960) per month. On environmental issues too, the Grillini swing leftwards. It claims that, under a M5S government, Italy would be running exclusively on renewable energy by 2050. Indeed M5S literally translates as ‘five stars’ - one for each of the party’s foundational values: public water access, sustainable transportation, sustainable development, a right to internet access, and environmentalism.

Contra-Berlusconi

If there is one unifying ideology driving M5S, it is a deep-rooted sense of distrust and frustration with an Italian political establishment seen by most as being hopelessly corrupt, and particularly with the man widely considered to embody that corruption: Silvio Berlusconi.

“One thing M5S has always been consistent about is its opposition to Berlusconi,” Fabio Bulfone, a researcher at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies in Florence, explains. “Most of its supporters perceive Berlusconi as being the embodiment of the corrupt political system they want to fight.”

Corruption and Italian politics are inextricably entwined. Each year Transparency International, publishes an index ranking countries according to the level of corruption among politicians and officials. In 2017 Italy sat fifty-fourth - behind the likes of Malta, Rwanda and South Korea, whose former prime minister was just sentenced to 24 years in prison for bribery, corruption and abuse of power.

M5S have characterised themselves as crusaders against Italy’s ‘dirty politics’. But in practice, thus far at least, that has proved easier said than done. Virginia Raggi, who shocked pundits to become mayor of Rome in 2016, was investigated for abuse of office by prosecutors last year. Although the charges were dropped, it was recommended that she be tried for allegedly making a false statement to an investigator. Likewise, in the month before the election, ten or so M5S lawmakers were accused of reneging on a commitment to pay half of their salaries into a fund for small businesses.

The Third Republic

What should be expected if M5S can cobble together a coalition?

“The key feature of M5S candidates is their incompetence,” Professor Codogno claims. “They come to power and they have no idea what to do, so they end up trying to mimic what others have done. My guess is that, if they manage to form a government, they might be in the same situation and realise that is what is in the programme is not really feasible.”

Mr. Di Maio has already become more pragmatic. One of the movement’s most eye-catching policies was a promise to hold a referendum on Eurozone membership, which Mr. Di Maio hastily rowed back on during the campaign. Though Mr. Grillo in particular has long been vocal in his criticism of Western interventionism, Mr. Di Maio said he sided with Italy’s Western allies after the recent missile strikes on Syria.

Most significantly, having previously vowed never to enter a coalition, M5S are now actively reaching out to both the PD and the Lega in an attempt to form a government, and Mr. Di Maio appears determined to become prime minister. There is no guarantee that will happen. With the PD apparently consigning themselves to opposition for the foreseeable future, Mr. Di Maio’s best chance of getting the top job may be an alliance with Matteo Salvini of the far-right Lega.

Whatever happens, M5S has indelibly changed Italy’s political landscape. The March election showed that Italy’s traditional parties are being gradually squeezed out. Five Star Movement's success appears to have ushered in a new era in Italian politics, a so-called ‘Third Republic’; and the old establishment is sitting on the outside, looking in. 

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