The Rise of the Five Star Movement in Italy

Joshua Cova

Many adjectives come to mind when describing Italian politics, but boring is surely not one of them. This has been certainly true, as Italy, Europe and the world regarded with anxiety the results of this February’s national elections, which, apart from seeing the surprising comeback (though not the victory) of Silvio Berlusconi’s party the People of Freedom, saw also the rise of a rather unique political force: namely the Five Star Movement led by former comedian Beppe Grillo. This movement achieved the unthinkable in last month’s elections: it became the third most powerful political force in the country by being voted by 25,55% of the Italian electorate in the elections for the lower House (The Chamber of deputies) and by 23.79% in those for the upper House (the Senate).    This article will not be so much concerned with the political situation as it presents itself in Italy today and with the difficult  situation which this parliamentary impasse causes and will presumably continue to cause, but rather it will attempt to contextualize and explore what the causes of the hyperbolic rise of the Five Star Movement are and what this could mean for Italy and Europe in the foreseeable future.

The beliefs and the problems the Movement wishes to tackle are clear by the symbolism of this political force.  The five stars, which give the name to the entire Movement, in fact represent five of the key issues which are of particular concern for the group’s leadership and members: Public water, sustainable energy, development, internet connectivity and environmentalism.  Needless to say these ideas are not the priority of the other Italian mainstream political parties. However, there is much more to say about the Movement’s ideology and policies than this. Its anti-corruption platform, its anger towards the ruling classes, its Euro-skepticism and its desire to have a more direct democracy, in fact, have had a vast popular appeal throughout the country, as the result of the February elections and the turnout at the Movement’s numerous rallies have demonstrated. Grillo’s charisma, with his violent rhetoric has repeatedly stirred up anger towards Italy’s politicians, who are believed to have failed completely in their task of reforming and modernizing the country and who are also believed to have served their personal interests better than that of their people.

Grillo’s movement is also renowned for assuming an uncompromising stance towards Italy’s many legally embattled MPs, some of whom although having been found guilty of various crimes, still continue to sit in Parliament. Lastly, the Movement’s emphasis on popular and citizen participation is for many the most characteristic aspect of this political movement and also constitutes what separates it the most from the other parties. This can  be clearly seen in the various policies the Five Star Movement has adopted already or has promised to adopt in its future political and parliamentary career. In fact, the deputies and senators which have been elected this February are all average citizens, who have little if no experience in politics, as the leaders of the Movement have chosen them by simply reading their Curricula. The Movement’s leaders would also like to see more citizen and popular initiatives, by giving normal citizens more possibilities of suggesting referendums. Furthermore, they often also emphasize the importance of a more direct and grass-root democracy and the importance of making the country’s political system more transparent and accountable to all Italians.

In order to realize fully how impressive and meteoric the rise of the Five Star Movement has been, one ought to consider how it all has started. Grillo, ended his career as a comedian in television in the 1990s, when he decided to consecrate his time mainly to exposing the corruption and the excesses of Italy’s politicians. Refusing to re-appear in television, attending talk shows or giving interviews to Italian newspapers, Grillo decided to use rather unconventional platforms to express his beliefs. In fact he recruited many of the Movement’s members through his blog which he launched in 2005. In this blog everyone had and has the opportunity to comment and suggest new reforms and changes in very different fields, ranging from a nationwide free wi-fi connection to a reassessment of Italy’s partnership with the European Union.  However, Grillo and the other members of the Five Star Movement did not limit their activities to their blog only, but also set out to organize massive rallies in the public piazzas of most of Italy’s cities. When the electoral campaign ended with an impressive tour of Italy’s main cities, the last rally the Movement held was in Piazza San Giovanni, one of the main squares in Rome, where more than 800,000 people were believed to have attended.

It is obviously, also very important to raise the question of how all of this has been possible? How could a Movement which started as a blog in 2005, with little funding and absolutely opposed to the conventional Italian party system, become so powerful and popular? The main answer for this is to be found when evaluating what Italians think of their political system nowadays, which is sadly renowned for its corruption and its many problems throughout the world. Apart from the ongoing scandals which are occurring and which are severely undermining the credibility of the country’s parliamentarians, there is also the feeling that Italy’s politicians have lost touch with the Italian people. This, coupled with the fact that the Five Star Movement is a new force, with new and even radical ideas and which is not implicated with the country’s current politicians, has led it to prominence and has showed how great the disillusionment with Italy’s political classes is really today.

Ultimately the rise of the Five Star Movement also raises the question of what the wider implication of this may be for Italy and for the European Union. Apart from having adopted an uncompromising stance on possible governing coalitions in the Italian parliament, effectively casting doubts on the governability of the country in the foreseeable future, the Five Star Movement presents itself as an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of the country. The rise of the Movement is to be seen in concomitance with the disillusionment affecting much of Italy’s public opinion today about its political system and the way the country is run. These elections’ result will provide much food for thought for Italy’s mainstream parties, which will presumably try to win Italy’s public over from what they often consider to be a protest and anti-establishment party led by a cunning and dangerous demagogue. For the European Union the rise of the Movement whose Euro-skepticism is renowned does also not bid well, as the Movement has vowed to attempt to pass a referendum which would re-discuss the terms and conditions of Italy’s continuation of its partnership with the European Union.

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