Italy’s Five Star Movement has been one of the most successful anti-establishment parties in Europe for years. Founded in 2009 by the comedian political guru Beppe Grillo and the late web strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio, it took Italy by storm: after gaining power in several major cities, including Rome, it became the largest faction in the 2018 national elections Houses of Parliament. With an emphasis on fighting corruption, protecting the environment and promoting direct democracy, it seemed on the right track to eradicate the old political system.
Now the five-star movement is giving up its populist patina in order to secure a place in the political mainstream of Italy – if it can.
The movement has now spent nearly three years in various power-sharing coalitions, with both right and left parties. It is currently part of a government of national unity led by Mario Draghi, a former President of the European Central Bank, who Grillo used to call “Dracula”. The once rebellious force has even joined a government with its old enemy Silvio Berlusconi, a media magnate and former prime minister who is often portrayed as the embodiment of the corruption of the Italian political elite. At the same time, the movement points to a structural alliance with the established social democrats in both Rome and Brussels.
The Five Star Movement “is transforming from an anti-establishment party into a party ready to work within the establishment,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, professor of political science at the LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome. “They realized that if they were to rule in the post-Draghi era they had to form alliances. This is a big change: the original Five Star wanted to do it alone. ”
His metamorphosis – alongside that of the far-right League party, which has thrown off its longstanding Euroscepticism in support of Draghi – suggests that the populist wave in Italy is losing steam. That would be a tectonic shift for a country where parties like the Five Star Movement and the League have long taken advantage of voter dissatisfaction with the political establishment.
The tremors could also be felt in Europe. For its part, the league party has railed against Europe for years. But now that it is in charge of the Ministry of Economic Development, which will play a key role in managing the huge inflow of money earmarked for Brussels to repair the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it has temporarily changed its mindset.
The Five Star Movement was often on a collision course with Brussels; In the past she has called for a referendum on Italy’s membership of the euro zone and renegotiation of Italy’s national debt. Now it is showing a Europe-friendly pedigree and is trying to join the mainstream left parties in the European Parliament.
“We are firmly in the pro-European camp, as shown by a growing, solid affinity for the socialists and democrats in our voting papers,” said Dino Giarrusso, a member of the Five Star Movement in the European Parliament.
But the hiss of the populist boom in Italy might be more obvious than real.
COVID-19 may have re-examined the populist dynamics for the time being by making the bombastic anti-system rhetoric less attractive to voters and encouraging outsider parties to take a more responsible path, said Federico Santi of the Eurasia Group. This is especially true in contrast to the last great shock, the financial crisis of 2007/08, when austerity – not generosity – was the buzzword.
“Sooner or later the focus will shift back to budget consolidation,” warned Santi. Efforts to reduce deficits and reduce debt could pave the way for a populist recovery.
“If we do not restore economic growth and prosperity, reduce unemployment and support the sectors hard hit by the pandemic, radical populism will return,” said D’Alimonte. “It subsided, not gone.”
For the time being, the five-star movement is at a crossroads between what it was and what it wants to be. Grillo stormed with his “Vaffa“(” Fuck you “) rallies that attracted large crowds to liven up traditional parties. The Five Star Movement was formally formed shortly thereafter to respond to widespread outrage among Italians over the low ethical standards that plagued their political class One of his main proposals was the introduction of stricter rules for aspiring MPs, for example without a criminal record.
The Five Star Movement rejected left-right labels and over the years appealed to voters from both camps. She advocated a stronger response to climate change, but also campaigned for the anti-immigrant mood in the electorate. This Janus-faced policy has been shown for the past three rocky years.
The five-star movement, which missed an absolute majority in 2018, formed two radically different coalitions in quick succession, first with Salvini’s far-right league party and then with the center-left Democratic Party. The five-star movement has lost much of its glamor. After exceeding 32 percent in 2018, their support crumbled after taking office and stagnated at around 15 percent for years. Many voters in the Five Star Movement appeared to disapprove of the coalition with Salvini, who, despite being the junior partner, dominated the headlines and government agenda with his tough stance on immigration.
After the far right pulled the plug in 2019, the formation of a new majority with the Social Democrats was viewed by some as opportunistic – a brazen linchpin to staying in power at all costs, in the best tradition of Italian politics olden Five Star Movement style used to denounce.
In a way, the Five Star Movement followed the same path as the Greek Syriza and the Spanish Podemos. Though both were more clearly left-wing than Grillo’s movement, they both rode an anti-establishment message to power and saw their support wane after they took office. Podemos, the junior member of a conflicted coalition with the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, saw a tank of numbers in the polls. This week the leader of Podemos left the government to campaign himself in the region.
Although Podemos still has an equal share of ministers in the Spanish coalition government, the five-star movement is not represented in the cobbled together new Italian government. The new cabinet reflects the fall of the movement: only four high-ranking ministers come from its ranks, out of nine, and it no longer controls economic development, labor, justice or education.
Despite the screams of opportunism, many loyalists to the Five Star Movement insist that staying in government is the best way to protect the advancing gains of the past few years. But the grassroots grumble: dozens of MPs have been expelled after failing to stand in line and vote for Draghi.
With tensions between hardliners and pragmatists escalating, Grillo weighed in late February, pointing out that the party’s future lies in closer ties with the Social Democrats and makes the environment its top political priority. “Obviously, when it comes to ensuring a more sustainable and equitable future, we are more focused on PD [Democratic Party] than with the other Italian parties, “said Daniela Rondinelli, another member of the Five Star Movement in the European Parliament.
The conclusion of the Five Star Movement is its new de facto leader: former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. After leading Italy through the first year of the pandemic, he is one of the most popular politicians in the country.
“Conte’s arrival is useful from an electoral standpoint,” said Luca Salvai, mayor of the Five Star Movement in Pinerolo, a town of 37,000 near Turin. “He strengthens our support and has the right personal and institutional profile to serve as prime minister.”
Still, it’s easier said than done for the five-star movement, whose identity is still fluid, to become part of the political mainstream. Although its political priorities and Conte’s election suggest that it is increasingly leaning to the left, many of its members remain cautious about ideological labels.
“They still think they can get votes across the board like they used to,” said D’Alimonte.
It’s not even clear how real the transition from the Five Star Movement to a progressive, pro-European stance really is. Flirting with the center-left party “is a pragmatic move to survive while leaders figure out what the future of the five stars will look like,” said Teresa Coratella of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
It also remains to be seen whether traditional parties will be ready to normalize relations with a movement that has berated them for so long. Much will depend on the electoral rules that will apply when the next election in Italy takes place. Majority systems encourage alliances more than proportional ones; Italy has a mix of both, but every party strategist takes into account possible new rules next time. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has its own identity crisis. Your leader is stepping down this month and deciphering the backstabbing between internal factions, many of whom have conflicting views on a long-term partnership with the Five Star Movement.
In Brussels, where traditional parties are wary of a movement spinning along the entire political highway, things are a little quieter.
“In recent years, the Five Stars have shown that they can change their minds very easily. That is why they are viewed with a certain degree of skepticism, ”said Coratella.