How Italy's Five Star Movement could redefine populism

Five-Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio waves after casting his vote.

Five-Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio waves after casting his vote Image: Reuters/Ciro De Luca

Alberto Alemanno
Founder, The Good Lobby
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On March 4, Italians unequivocally sought to disrupt a political system that they perceive as self-serving and out-of-touch with their daily realities.

When one Italian out of two supports anti-establishment, anti-EU and anti-science parties, something serious must have happened in the country. Indeed, after decades of economic stagnation, growing inequality and migration-based concerns – which have been grossly amplified by social media – Italians turned their back on mainstream political forces and opted instead for two very different anti-establishment parties, the Five Star Movement and the League (formerly the Northern League).

The two new kids in the block seem to have divided the country between themselves: while the League is by far the most influential political force in the north, the internet-driven Five Star Movement has won virtually every constituency in the south. Together they took more than 50% of the proportional vote.

As such, their respective leaders, 31-year-old Luigi di Maio, a politician almost randomly selected by Rousseau – the pioneering internet platform used to run the party – and possibly Matteo Salvini, the anti-immigrant Viktor Orbán of Italian politics, might soon be offered the chance to form a government together.

This would become the first EU-sceptic government in charge of one of the founding countries of the European Union – a country which is the third largest in the Eurozone.

Yet, while more critical of the EU than any previous government, a Five Star-led coalition would not per se entail embracing an anti-establishment, populist agenda. Rather, the Movement has the potential to mitigate the worst populism underpinning the League’s message and other nationalistic minority groups. With its dogmatic “direct democracy” credo, the Movement represents the only fresh attempt at drawing citizens into politics by lowering its entry barriers and asking the right questions. It’s no surprise that angry middle-aged workers and unemployed young people alike massively backed its message.

Initiated by comedian Beppe Grillo, the Five Star Movement originated as a series of meet-up groups for the politically disillusioned across Italy. Later, it evolved into a software designed to inject direct democracy into the movement by conducting online primary votes and surveying members on policies, as well as conducting crowdfunding drives.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, after the election.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, after the election. Image: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini

Even if it has its own share of scandals, the Movement’s major battles stand on the right side of history. The name “Five Star” refers to five core positions of the party: sustainable transportation, public water access, sustainable development, a right to internet access and environmentalism. In particular, it fights corruption, advocates for more transparency in government and typically communicates in plain language through its online site.

In other words, the Movement has shown its readiness to address all those concerns that any progressive political force should have, but which the leading Italian progressive party – the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, or PD) – had failed to tackle. As such, the Five Star Movement carries the potential to find common ground and coalesce with other political forces – even PD itself, now that its leader Matteo Renzi has conceded defeat – as well as the more left-leaning Free and Equal and More Europe with Emma Bonino, the only deliberately pro-EU movement in Italy.

Indeed, while the key theme underlying the election was a largely misplaced anti-immigrant backlash that echoed the anger expressed in previous elections in the west, there are interests shared between the Five-Star Movement and other political forces, such as the PD, ranging from the promotion of civil rights to the fight against inequality. That’s what led the Five Star to enter the orbit of the European liberal family a couple of years ago, when Guy Verhofstadt invited them to join the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe – a process that was aborted, however.

Today, its rapid ascension to power could accelerate the normalization of the Movement. By leaving aside bigotry and embracing evidence and analytical methods, it could turn it into a reformist platform capable of tackling the real challenges facing Italy, such as its high youth unemployment, low productivity and public debt. Yet for this to occur, the Movement will need to not only render its governance structure more transparent and accountable, but also do its homework when it comes to its ambiguous position vis-à-vis the European project.

Over the last 20 years, Italian politicians – both from the right (Berlusconi) and the left (Renzi) – have been using Europe as a scapegoat for everything that was wrong in Italy. This EU-bashing fuelled the rise of Eurosceptic sentiment in the country, thus shaping the Movement itself, which today sits in the European parliament with Nigel Farage’s UKIP.

Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio arrives to cast his vote.
Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio arrives to cast his vote. Image: Reuters/Ciro De Luca

Yet today neither Italy nor the EU can afford for the Five Star Movement to entertain such an ambiguous relationship with the European project. And there are signs suggesting that the Movement might be ready to abandon its sovereigntist sentiment. Indeed, in the run-up to the election, the party has toned down its anti-EU rhetoric and set aside its call for a referendum on membership of the Euro. In that, it seemed to respond to public opinion, which – in the aftermath of Brexit and with an economy that is finally growing by almost 1.5% a year – has softened toward the EU.

If the Movement could offer to Europe the same freshness it brought to Italian politics, then the EU – not only Italy – could benefit from it. Yet for this to happen, the Five Stars must decide where Italy should stand in Europe. The ongoing debate on the reform of the Eurozone may offer a perfect window of opportunity for the movement to make this call. Moreover, driven by the impetus of French president Emmanuel Macron, the next 13 months are set to lead to a deep and broad re-composition of European political affiliations. Will Italy side with the likes of Orban and the Polish populist leader Jarosław Kaczyński? With Macron and Angela Merkel? Or will it be able to eventually set its own course of action aimed at sketching out yet another Europe?

Much of the success of the next Italian government in delivering its many promises to its own people will depend on how committed it will be to the European project and its underlying values. The more it will give, the more it will take.

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