The comedian and TV personality Beppe Grillo has shaken up Italian politics since launching his Five Star Movement, and the party continued its success by securing a large share of the vote in Italy’s recent regional elections. Grillo has also faced criticism, however, following a tweet on the subject of immigration in which he stated that new elections should be held before “Rome is swamped by rats, rubbish and illegal immigrants”. Nicolò Conti writes on the development of the party, noting that while its stance on immigration remains ambiguous, the Five Star Movement continues to offer a new kind of radical and popular opposition to the Italian government.
The rise of new parties is an important trend in European countries, even more so in recent years since they have increased in number and electoral size. Some of these parties ascribe to political radicalism; some are not radical, but aim at representing ideologies that are already represented, albeit poorly, by the established parties. Others do not differ much from the old parties with respect to policy but try to convince voters that they are better in other respects, such as in the honesty of their leaders.
The ability of these new parties to become electorally successful is dependent on their capacity to distinguish themselves from older parties. But in order to be electorally successful these new parties also need to address social problems that are considered critical by a significant number of voters, represent neglected issues and interests, purify original ideologies that have been abandoned by the conventional parties, or rejuvenate established ideologies. Many of such parties have recently emerged in Europe, however nowadays the main challenge to democracy is certainly represented by those parties ascribing to political radicalism.
The radicalism of the Five Star Movement
The Five Star Movement in Italy is certainly one of these radical challengers. At its first general elections in February 2013 the party gained 25.6 per cent of the vote, resulting in it becoming the most voted party in the lower chamber (the second one in the upper chamber) of the Italian parliament, with a truly national base having gained similar percentages of votes in all areas of the country. In the following (European, local) elections this party has proved an enduring challenge to the more established parties, ranking as second largest party in the country in terms of its size.
The Five Star Movement’s organisation and communication strategies are unconventionally based on a mix of protest, support for unmediated direct democracy and the strong communication abilities of its leader, the popular comedian and former TV star Beppe Grillo. However, the emergence of the party is not only linked to its ability to distinguish itself from the older parties (defined in their narrative as corrupt) and from the political and economic establishment (defined as the enemy of the people). It is also thanks to its capacity to represent issues and interests considered urgent by citizens, but not covered by the other parties. Most of these issues and interests result from globalisation and de-nationalisation processes, as well as from the economic crisis.
By defending losers in the above processes the party builds on the increased sense of insecurity of citizens. The phenomenon of radical parties representing popular discontent and providing a structure to citizens’ attitudes that would be otherwise latent in the political system is common to other countries as well. It is certainly a key challenge in the countries most severely hit by the crisis, such as those in southern Europe. It is possible to identify similarities between parties such as the Five Star Movement in Italy, Podemos in Spain and to some extent Syriza in Greece. Economic and political grievances are influential factors in explaining the vote for these parties whose emergence can be associated with the effects of the economic crisis and the austerity measures externally induced by the EU and implemented by national governments.
The Five Star Movement was able to capture the mounting discontent of the public for conventional parties as well as the wide-spread concern of Italians for their income and economic conditions. It also captured a corresponding demand for an expansion of social security schemes, as well as the re-distribution of wealth and social regulation of the market. Some of the proposals of the Five Star Movement (such as measures for income support and a guaranteed minimum income and social housing) are highly ambitious and probably unsustainable for a country in prolonged economic recession like Italy, with a large public debt and under strict financial control. Indeed, the main goal of the Five Star Movement until now has been one of vote maximisation, certainly not to become ‘coalitionable’ for government. Many have accused the party of playing an irresponsible role, rather than a constructive one, during its period in opposition; however this posture has not reduced its popular support dramatically until now.
Post-materialist issues, and particularly environmentalism, have also become more relevant issues for Italian voters and especially for younger generations (the cohort where the Five Star Movement is most popular), but in contrast to other national contexts they were not well represented in the Italian party system, while the Five Star Movement has been careful in taking up these issues as well.
The party has also tried to build on widespread negative feelings about immigration, which is increasingly a divisive issue within Italian society (particularly after the massive immigration flows that have affected the country after the Arab spring). However, the Five Star Movement has proved much less cohesive on this issue than on socio-economic issues, or on the fight against political corruption. It has even revealed a deep internal division between a more humanitarian party component and the leadership that is instead more prone to defend strict measures against illegal immigration, as illustrated by the recent reaction against a tweet made by Beppe Grillo on the subject. In the end, the party stance on immigration is rather ambivalent and at times not easily decipherable for citizens; moreover other radical parties in the Italian party system represent anti-immigration feelings in a more linear way.
Taking cues from voters is a principle that has deeply characterised the first steps in the life of the Five Star Movement. The good fit between its programmatic supply and citizens’ most pressing demands has been one of the keys to its electoral success. Its continual attacks against corrupt national/supranational elites in a typical populist fashion is another key element. With representation in large numbers in the Italian parliament as well as in local institutions, it remains to be seen how the party will make an impact and put into practice its popular (but incautious) stances.
Note: A version of this article originally appeared at our partner site, Democratic Audit. It gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Nicolò Conti – Unitelma Sapienza University
Nicolò Conti is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Unitelma Sapienza University of Rome. His main research focus is on parties, elites, the EU and on coalition governance. He has co-authored The Emergence of a New Party in the Italian Party System: Rise and Fortunes of the Five Star Movement.