This has happened previously with the Communist party which, once introduced, became the most numerous in Europe and forever changed the character of the party. It remained international in many respects but it also acquired an Italian flavor which forever changed its character. One thinks of Antonio Gramsci.
The same can be said for the populist movement which has swept the EU and the US since 2016: it is generally anti-euro, Euro-skeptic, anti-refugees, even anti-immigrant. But in Italy it isn’t your typical far right party. It is pro-environment protection, sustainable transport, pro protection of public water, anti political corruption, anti-violence, opposition of European austerity measures and foreign interventions. It sounds almost liberal socialist, but there are caveats to pay attention to. For example, its views on relations with Russia and the US are not too far from those of far right French populist leader Marine Le Pen.
The five stars are symbolical of the five key issues on which the party claims to focus: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, the right to internet access, and environmentalism. However, their political stands remain ambiguous. Some say, purposely so, in order to take from both the right and the left and claim to be neither. Some see this as a clever and convenient way to avoid rigorous policy commitments. For example, the party is not openly racist or anti-immigrant but uses dog-whistle tactics to subtly promote it. The slogan “we are not with Putin and we are not with Putin” may indicate that they are with the EU, but that is not the case either. So what is this party with? They claim to have a new approach. What might it be? Let’s see.
To better understand a movement it is best to retrace its origins. The M5S (Movimento Cinque Stelle) was founded by Beppe Grillo, a comedian and blogger in 2009. He attracted attention for his satirizing of the Italian political establishment which was in many ways corrupt. He inveighed against tax evasion via social media and that assured him a sudden rise in Italian political polls. He organized meetings on the site Meetup.com, coalesced activist groups and then fielded candidates for elections. One of their most popular strategies was the advocacy of cuts to Italian parlamentarians’ salaries who earned much more than EU parlamentarians.
The rapid growth of the party can be explained by the fact that a good number of people had legitimate grievances with the traditional ruling parties of Italy. Legitimate grievances explain much of the global populism going on as we speak. It cuts across social lines on both the right and the left. Sometimes a populist movement is the only anti-establishment opposition voice within an oppressive anti-democratic government. Apparently that’s what happened in Italy in 2012 when it began winning mayoral races. The most successful of those races was that of Virginia Raggi, a lawyer, who won with a stunning 67% of the vote. In 2016, at 37 she was the city’s first female mayor and its youngest. Ever since the party has maintained some 30% of the national vote. Grillo’s website is one of the most visited world-wide.
But to go back to our inquiry. What exactly is the new promised approach of M5S? If one peruses carefully and critically Grillo’s blog, one notices a certain authoritarian streak. Followers are urged to follow the leadership line. He seems to like the likes of Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Donald Trump whose election he supported, not to speak of their anti-immigrant and Islamophobic views. In a tweet some time ago he compared immigrants to rats and has embraced conspiracy theories about refugees destabilizing Europe redolent of Steve Bannon’s complaints. There are obvious racist tendencies there, a throw-back to the old European cancer of anti-Semitism and White supremacy.
So, what’s in store for Italy’s next general elections to be held next year? The M5S is predicting that it will do very well, and that may happen, but the crucial question remains: will they placate the disenchantment with the status quo after they have riled it up? They have promised to be fiercely independent of other parties, but in Italy politically fractured landscape, how are they to form any sort of government without an alliance with other parties? Hard to see how they will solve that conundrum.
Italians may currently feel trapped within the EU political bureaucracy governed by myopic European politicians all but neglectful of its ideals, that the M5S is their last option. That may be, but it begins to sound like an act of desperation, very much like choosing a Trump in the US for lack of good alternatives. Before heading to the voting boots they may wish to pause and reflect on the fact that presently, with Trump at the helm, democracy is in real and present danger and the outcome as to its survival is in doubt . Grillo does not show great promise of being any better when it comes to democracy, human rights and human solidarity.