Five Star Movement: Italy’s own brand of populism

The Five Star Movement, a different brand of populism than seen in the US and Britain, has its sights set on the next Italian elections.

Maurizio Degl'Innocenti/ANSA via AP
Demonstrators clash with police during a protest against Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, in Florence, Italy, on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016 to show opposition to a constitutional referendum on Dec. 4 that Renzi has called.

You would think Europe’s politicians would have had enough of referendums for a while.

Italians will go to the polls on Dec. 4 to vote up or down on a constitutional overhaul, in a referendum with potentially monumental implications for the country, thanks to Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s 2015 boast that he would stake his term on its passage. But there’s nothing that requires him to resign if voters reject the plan, notes Matteo Garavoglia, Italy Program fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe.

“I wouldn’t take that for granted,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor. “From a legal point of view he doesn’t have to.”

But the Five Star Movement – an ideologically elusive band of populists led by comedian Beppe Grillo – has leaped at the chance, leading a vigorous opposition campaign to defeat the overhaul, which went to the ballot after it failed to pass with a two-thirds majority in Italy’s parliament. The latest polls show them ahead, with a slight majority of voters saying they’ll vote against the overhaul.

The referendum is being touted in some quarters as a moment of truth for Italy, a day that could unleash a chain of events that might eventually see Renzi’s government swallowed by the same anti-establishment wave that rolled over the United States (with the election of Donald Trump) and Britain (with the vote on Brexit). Unlike the far-right forces on the crest of that wave, though, the Five Star is less united around grievances stemming from immigration and free trade – though it’s also no stranger to those either. While the path forward it envisions for Italy still seems unclear, the party seems to incarnate an unpredictable, incoherent yet unusually viable strain of populism.

Demographically, many of its supporters tend to be the Italian counterparts of the core supporters of Mr. Trump and the United Kingdom's Independence Party (Ukip), says Dr. Garavoglia: “overwhelmingly male, relatively uneducated, usually white, and in lower socioeconomic demographics.”

“They’ve been skillful in appealing to voters from across the political spectrum,” from old supporters of former president Silvio Berlusconi to those who traditionally voted for center-left parties, he adds.

But perhaps because Italians tend to see themselves as benefactors of the European Union, party officials tend not to be opponents of the bloc. Luigi Di Maio, the deputy speaker of Italy’s parliament and leading voice of the party, dismissed the idea of an “Italexit” in an interview with the Guardian in July, suggesting that businesses fleeing a post-Brexit London could even end up in Italy.

“Italy could have a kind of recruitment drive, with taxation that allows companies that are there and want to come to Italy and contribute to the economic development of this country,” he said then.

And on certain social-welfare issues, the party “is in some ways further to the left than either Trump or [Ukip leader Nigel] Farage and their respective parties at this moment,” says Julia Lynch, associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and affiliate of the Italian Studies program there.

Four of the five “stars” in its name, she tells the Monitor, refer to the environmentalism that gave the group its initial visibility. And there are elements of traditional progressivism on the economy that “aren’t just about erecting trade barriers, and [the party] promotes government activity on behalf of lower-income people”, Dr. Lynch adds.

But unlike progressive populists elsewhere in Europe, like Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos, the party hasn’t done much to oppose austerity measures or unveiled a profound plan to counter inequality.

What binds the party more than anything may be twofold: its disdain for what it sees as a corrupt political class (“Vaffanculo!” is their favored rallying cry), and the leadership of Mr. Grillo, a charismatic figure who exercises fierce control within the party. The party refuses to form alliances, shuts out the mainstream media entirely, and local representatives are required to seek permission from the top for important decisions, reports the Local

That has helped earn Grillo unwelcome comparisons to another notorious, ideologically slippery autocrat from Italy’s past. And as Grillo's party has gained power, he has made xenophobic comments of a sort more common among the far right and called for a clampdown on humanitarian visas for asylum seekers, while the party’s last-minute refusal to back a bill legalizing same-sex civil unions caused it to crumble in parliament this year. 

“It’s quite clear that Grillo is still the person calling the shots,” says Dr. Garavoglia, “so there are a lot of accusations that this political movement that says it’s grassroots, in reality, is skillfully led by a person behind the scenes, and not in a transparent way."

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