• New Political Actors in Polarised ­Democracies: The Case of Beppe Grillo – Perspectives for the Left

  • By Roberto Biorcio | 16 May 13
  • The appetite for change which characterised the recent national elections of February 2013 was largely identified with and expressed by Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S), which took 25% of votes. This has completely thrown off balance the way of thinking we have been used to for the past 20 years dominated by bipolar competition between centre-right and centre-left. The Democratic Party did not manage to score the victory that seemed inevitable according to the polls because it was more interested in reassuring the markets and Brussels than paying attention to and interpreting the demand for change. Nor were any of the other left-wing parties successful, which proposed themselves as parties able to meet this need for change. Left Ecology Freedom whose principal figure is Nichi Vendola) only got 3% of the vote and Antonio Ingroia’s Civil Revolution only took 2%.

    M5S’s success is born from a movement which, unusually, developed over the years through internet mobilisations and demonstrations in the streets. It is only more recently that Grillo’s movement became directly involved in elections, starting as a local party and finally participating in the national elections over the course of the past year. In Italy we have not (yet) had any demonstrations which can be compared to those of the Indignados in Spain, Portugal and Greece. Dissatisfaction and the demand for change have been strongly expressed chiefly through voting. The M5S has succeeded where many others failed:  in getting the issues of local and national citizen mobilisations into political institutions, issues that political parties do not recognise and are generally ignored by the mainstream media.


    The political space for populism in Italy

    In Europe, the coincidence of two processes is responsible for the current favourable conditions for populist protest. The first is the crisis of the mainstream parties and changes the traditional representation systems have undergone. The second is the development of globalisation which has created many problems and demands in various countries and created new social fractures that the main parties are unable to represent and manage. These problems have been worsened by the effects of the economic crisis and the austerity measures promoted by the European Union.

    After WWII and the anti-fascist resistance, the Italian political system offered very little room for the spread of populism. The distance between the masses and the main parties grew in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War and above all after the Tangentopoli corruption scandals. Distrust of the political class grew sharply and party membership collapsed.

    And so, far more room for unrest and populist politics was created in Italy than in other European countries. The Italian Social Movement, the right-wing party most similar to the French Front National in terms of its history and ideological tradition, was not able to exploit this political space. In addition, at the end of the 1980s the crisis of party identification was seen among moderate centre voters and practising Catholics in particular.  The Northern League, a regional formation unrelated to the more important Italian political traditions, identified and exploited the space which was now available to a populist movement. Following this, the same political space was also used very successfully by the commercial television monopolist Silvio Berlusconi. The differences between the League’s populism and that of Berlusconi fostered competition and conflict for some time, but from 2001 a convergence was sought, and their parties governed Italy for many years. Over the last few years, however, distrust of the centre-right government has continued to grow. Not just Berlusconi, but also Northern League ministers were held responsible for the failures in the face of the expectations they had encouraged.

    After the end of the Berlusconi government, the formation of the government led by Monti and supported by both the Democratic Party (PD) and the People of Liberty (PdL) undermined the credibility of the main political parties seen as increasingly less able to address citizens’ real problems. Judicial inquiries revealed scandals involving members of all parties, while the public was increasingly pressed by the effects of the economic crisis and the government’s austerity measures, supported by the three largest parties.  The League was in opposition once more and tried to lead the protests against the Monti government’s policies, with little success because of the government responsibility they had recently shared with Berlusconi. Over the past year, many League voters abstained, while others have been attracted by the 5 Star Movement, seen as a more credible interpreter of the protests against the parties and against the Monti government.  Grillo’s movement identified and expressed the huge appetite for change which was very clearly expressed in the February 2013 ­elections.


    Creating a new type of movement

    Before arriving on the electoral scene, Grillo built and consolidated a genuine movement based on the internet. The Genovese comedian gradually transformed his role and on many occasions became a mouthpiece for citizens’ protests and grassroots movements.  A comedian going into politics can be particularly effective, because in this way key elements of popular culture can be taken up and transformed, a point which has been highlighted several times in anthropological studies. By using satire, impressions and caricatures of politicians, it is possible to communicate information which would otherwise be difficult or uncomfortable to say, information that can easily overcome the barriers set up by social norms and has a profound effect on how the public thinks and feels.

    However, the original approach and innovative aspects of the new movement only emerged after the involvement of Gianroberto Casaleggio, one of Italy’s foremost experts on internet marketing strategy. This collaboration showed that it is possible successfully to combine two possible strategies for managing political initiative and collective mobilisation. Casaleggio’s advice and professional ability offered Grillo’s political activism, and his extraordinary ability to communicate with the public, a way of growing exponentially that cannot be hindered by those who control the largest television networks and newspapers.

    The blog, which began in 2005, was a space for information and discussion, but it also became a platform to launch collective and participatory political initiatives, including the campaigns: ‘Out of Iraq’ for the withdrawal of Italian troops, ‘Clean Parliament’, to remove convicted deputies from Parliament and campaigns defending consumers and small shareholders against big companies.

    The creation of the movement really got going when the meetups started, platforms which allowed the blog visitors to organise themselves as local activists in constant mutual contact. A new space for meeting, interacting and socialising was created for people who were potentially interested in changing Italian politics and society, many of whom had never previously participated in parties, groups or organisations.

    With demonstrations in hundreds of Italian town centres – the ‘Vaffanculo Days’ (‘F*ck Off Days’) or ‘V-Days’ in 2007 and 2008 – the movement showed the functional potential that the meetup networks could also have outside of the internet. The aim of the mobilisations was to collect signatures for popular bills and referendums. For the first time, the two V-Days gave the movement a great deal of visibility in the national media and public opinion, showing its ability to exist beyond the internet.

    In three years, a network of links between people with shared beliefs, a sense of belonging and a collective identity was created, and they opposed the same adversaries – typical features of a social movement. The new movement enjoyed a success in Italy comparable to that of the Piraten in Germany or the MoveOn demonstrations in support of Obama during the 2008 election campaign.   Today, the M5S has a network of around 1,100 meetups across 900 cities and small towns, with almost 140,000 activists. 

    Grillo has maintained his role as the spokesperson and megaphone of popular protest, but has progressively altered his political commitment, striving to understand and listen to the public’s needs, collecting and re-working the ideas of his movement’s activists, in order to be in tune with the ‘grassroots’ political and social mobilisations which have appeared over the past 20 years.


    Involvement in the electoral arena  and the management of protests

    Following the success of the V-Day rallies, the movement was increasingly closer oriented toward using another democratic tool: the promotion of non-party lists to participate in elections on a local level. The Five Star Movement (M5S) was founded in Milan on 4 October 2009, with a 120-point programme and a non-statute’ which establishes the membership rules. The movement rejects the idea of creating a party as an organised and professionalised tool which acts as a representative/mediator between citizens and the institutions.

    The crisis of the parties which were formed after the First Republic, along with the deep mistrust of the political class, created very favourable conditions for M5S. In the 2012 regional elections, the movement garnered 500,000 votes, reaching 7% in the region of Emilia-Romagna and 5% in Piedmont. In 2012, M5S achieved a decisive qualitative leap; it was seen as a more credible interpreter of the protests against the parties and against the Monti government. In Parma the M5S candidate became mayor, winning 19% of votes and then the second ballot with 60%. M5S was also successful in Genoa (with 14% of the vote) and in many other municipalities in the north and centre, with votes ranging from 8 to 12%. The results were ­higher than expected, doubling – going from 6-7% to 18-20% – what the national polls had estimated for the movement.

    The M5S gained wider approval because it was able to rely on an online network which was already strong and widespread. Grillo refused to participate in any television broadcasts, but his message was received by all sectors of the public,  particularly the criticism, controversy and ridicule aimed at the key political and government figures. In this way, in just a few months, the M5S became the principal reference point for the protest against the parties and the ‘caste’, playing a role similar to that of the Northern League in the first half of the 1990s.

    M5S was the party which won the biggest share of the vote in the February 2013 elections, with 25% in the Chamber of Deputies. It collected almost a third of those who had voted for Sinistra Arcobaleno (‘Left Rainbow’, an electoral coalition of Rifondazione, the Comunisti Italiani, the Greens and Sinistra Democratica) or for Italy of Values in 2008 and won 14% of former PD voters. It also won a lot of votes as a result of the severe crisis which shook the centre-right coalition: Grillo’s movement thus won 16% of voters who voted for the Pdl in 2008 and 24% of those who voted for the League.

    These trends changed the social profile of M5S voters. Support cuts across social strata but is particularly high among factory workers, the unemployed, the self-employed and students. It is no surprise that the PD and the PdL are particularly weak in those social groups which were worst hit by the effects of the crisis and the Monti government’s austerity measures. The PD is most popular among pensioners and the PdL among housewives.


    From populist rhetoric to promoting participatory democracy

    Many commentators tried to delegitimise M5S, comparing it to one of the many populist phenomena managed by right-wing political parties in other European countries. Grillo himself controversially accepted this comparison, turning the meaning on its head. The most obvious feature which M5S shares with populist movements is its strong criticism of political parties and the political class. Grillo’s line takes up various aspects of populist rhetoric, expressed in the disenchanted and ironic forms of a comedian. The voters who voted for the M5S are different from those who voted for other political parties above all because of their deep distrust of public representative bodies and political institutions. In fact, trust in the parties (4%), the Chamber of Deputies (12%) and the trade unions (19%), is very low, clearly lower than that for League voters. There is a great deal of criticism of financial institutions and the media. M5S voters have very little trust in banks (6%) and the stock market (13%). Their evaluation of television and radio’s trustworthiness is also very low, with the RAI at 13% and Mediaset at 23%.

    However, the way M5S has translated protests into proposals is very different from that of the populist right. For parties in the populist right, the people can regain sovereignty by putting their faith in a ‘strong’ leader able to represent the will of the common people in the institutions. The people are defined as a community in ethnic-cultural terms, which sees immigrants as the enemy and more generally other national communities or transnational bodies.

    M5S’s project, on the other hand, is to establish itself as a tool for regaining popular sovereignty, by activating all forms of citizens’ participation. The programme put together by the Grillo movement is completely different from, in fact almost the opposite of, the platforms supported by populist parties. The goals established are above all aimed at encouraging a citizens’ participatory democracy, defending a universalist social state and protecting and enhancing common and/or public property.

    M5S is very different from traditional political formations, but paradoxically, has had to reproduce in new ways many of the roles that the parties fulfilled in the past and which have either fallen into disuse or are poorly managed. Starting with creating a network of activists spread across the country, selecting and monitoring candidates elected to political institutions and, finally, understanding and communicating the public’s demands.

    The large historical parties of the past referred to a social base which they privileged, or they proposed general goals which justified their existence.  As already mentioned, the M5S rejects the idea of creating a party as an organised and professionalised tool which acts as a representative/mediator between citizens and the institutions. The key project is to put citizens back at the centre of politics, making them the protagonists in all choices and decisions, both on the local and national level. The assumptions conveyed by the ‘non-statute’ show how similar the M5S is to the German Piraten party, although the latter cannot rely on the capacity for communication and fame of a charismatic leader.

    The M5S has created a scheme providing for three levels of participation: activist, sympathiser and voter. At the very beginning it introduced registration procedures open to all sympathisers. The main differences in relation to traditional parties have to do with the potential for increasing direct participation, particularly in the context of the movement, that the web offers. This is perhaps the most innovative aspect of this new political subject, and allowed M5S to overcome the drop in participation which is affecting all political parties. The blog has also become the most important channel for getting direct messages to sympathisers and potential voters; it has in fact replaced the role of political guidance and teaching that parties fulfilled through different channels.

    The internet made it possible to recruit many activists who were previously alienated from politics. Membership offers the right to participate in the decision-making processes activated through the movement and establishes a relationship with the sympathisers, in the same way as a traditional party card did. Using the blog and meetups to bring political discussion back to the people and promote public opinion campaigns has, over seven years, created a mass of sympathisers, some of whom have become members of M5S and, in many cases, also activists.

    The M5S was not built on a programme that was defined from the beginning. It progressively developed a programmatic platform which sought to respond to the widespread needs and demands of citizens, public opinion and in particular the more frequent users of the internet. In the past, the political parties of European countries played a central role in the life of democracy, ensuring that the citizens’ demands for political action were communicated. When creating its programme, the M5S tried to reproduce this role in a variety of ways, one which is fulfilled increasingly less and often in an unsatisfactory way by the current parties.

    There are still many challenges and problems which M5S has opened up: the rejection of politics as a profession, the practice of politics as a temporary activity of the citizen and the resistance to creating organisational structures beyond the internet – all this can create many problems for a political subject which must manage power and responsibility on a national level. The movement cannot limit itself simply to being a ‘tool’ to encourage protest and the direct participation of citizens, but must rethink its organisational structures. Direct democracy may be sufficient for managing political issues in limited local areas or in the web community. But it is hard to practice when the task shifts to the national level and political decisions are only actually made by Grillo and the central staff. In this phase, the Genovese comedian cannot limit his role to that of ‘guarantor’ to avoid traditional political practices from repeating themselves. To interact with other national political leaders on a daily basis he must stress his role as the movement’s political guide. Grillo is also the key link for maintaining the unity of the activists and ensuring they have a significant influence in the political arena. There is, however, still a certain ambivalence about his role which has caused some disagreements and discussion among M5S ­activists.

    In any event, M5S has made an important contribution to political change, focusing attention back on many critical issues and problems which beleaguer our democracy –  from loss of sovereignty and powers of the citizen to the distrust of the current system of representation, to the difficulty of creating new and credible ways of participating in politics. The answers to these questions proposed by M5S’s experience do contain some problems and contradictions; but they must seriously be considered as explorations of possible ways of changing Italian politics.