Is the Five Star Movement the blueprint for political parties going forward?

The leader of Italy's Five Star Movement, former comedian Beppe Grillo.
The leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement, former comedian Beppe Grillo.

The Five Star Movement is an Italian political party which was established in October 2009 by former comedian Beppe Grillo and web strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio. Despite having only been around for seven years, the Five Star Movement is now considered to be the second most popular party in Italy, behind only Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party. In the 2013 General Election, the Five Star Movement managed to gain 25.5 percent of the vote, amounting to just under nine million votes in total, an astonishing result for such a young party. Following this result, party candidtae Luigi Di Maio was elected as the Vice-President of the Chamber of Deputies. The following year, the Five Star Movement gained seventeen MEPs in the 2014 European Parliament Elections; whilst in June of this year, the party managed to win key mayoral races in Rome and Turin, and on Sunday they were able to defeat Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s attempts at constitutional reform.

Like many of the rises forces in politics around the world (think Trump, Farage and UKIP, and Le Pen), the Five Star Movement prides itself on being populist and anti-establishment, a stance which is clearly proving to be successful in politics all around the world.

However, although the Five Star Movement are Eurosceptic and have advocated closer ties with Russia (bread and butter issues for populists), they haven’t been especially ideologically close to existing populists. The populist, anti-establishment politicians you hear most about are the people like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Geert Wilders. The likes of Le Pen, Wilders, and Norbert Hofer (who was just defeated in the Austrian Presidential Election) can comfortably be described as being ideologically far-right, whilst Trump and Farage are also very right-wing. This is not the case with the Five Star Movement, with the Northern League (or Lega Nord) the only large far-right political party in Italy. Instead, the Five Star Movement hold a syncretic political position, and operate outside the traditional left-right paradigm.

For example, whilst the Five Star Movement has taken a Eurosceptic position (one of the party’s key positions is withdrawing Italy from the Euro), it has avoided the xenophobia of the Northern League, and the overt nationalism of UKIP and the National Front (although having said this, party leader Beppe Grillo has expressed his support for Nigel Farage and Donald Trump). By doing this and instead focusing its attacks on the political elite and the privileges that they enjoy, the party has been able to gain the support of voters on both the left and right of the political spectrum. In the UK, perhaps the closest that we currently have to a syncretic party is UKIP, who despite being predominantly a right-wing party, have attempted to take some more left-wing positions in a attempt to court traditional Labour voters in the North of England, with this likely to continue in earnest following the election of Paul Nuttall as the new party leader. However, overall UKIP remain a right-wing party, and so are not easily comparable to the syncretic nature of the Five Star Movement, whose key issues include public water and environmentalism, nonviolence, and Euroscepticism, whilst party leader Beppe Grillo has also supported the payment of a universal wage in Italy — positions which don’t ordinarily go together. Although, like many populist parties, the Five Star Movements policies are rather vague and it’s difficult to predict exactly what they would do were they to win power. However, ideology is not at all relevant to why the Five Star Movement could provide the model for political parties in the future. What is relevant is the way that the party is organised.

The Five Star Movement are committed to direct democracy and E-democracy, and have advocated asking party supporters to pick both policies and electoral candidates online. After demanding that snap elections be held following Matteo Renzi’s resignation as Prime Minister, party leader Beppe Grillo wrote on his blog, “From next week we will start to vote for the government programme online, followed by the government team.” The party used a similar system of online voting when selecting Virginia Raggi as their candidate for Mayor of Rome, an election which Raggi subsequently won. The Five Star Movement touts this online process as being more transparent than they ways in which the traditional parties choose their election candidates, and idea which is proving popular given the anti-establishment mood in Italy and the anger at the perceived cronyism and corruption prevalent in Italian politics. However, although the Five Star Movement claim that the process is transparent and democratic, party founder Grillo still maintains strong control over the party’s direction and the party hasn’t used a third-party monitor during any of its primary elections, leaving them open to tampering. However, given the Five Star Movement’s electoral success, this kind of party organisation has clearly worked well. Perhaps the closest we have to this in the UK is Momentum, the organisation set up to support Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party. However, given recent reports of infighting and power struggles over Momentum founder Jon Lansman’s plans to open Momentum up to direct democracy, it is up in the air as to whether Momentum will be able to replicate the Five Star Movement’s success. Given Jeremy Corbyn’s unelectability (in terms of Prime Minister at least) I would guess that Momentum will struggle to replicate the Five Star Movement’s success. Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have also suggested organising UKIP like the Five Star Movement, in part to achieve Banks’ professed goal of ‘draining the swamp’ of Westminster, but there has been no sign of this happening just yet. But, what it is clear is that parties at both ends to the ideological spectrum are noting the successes of organisations such as the Five Star Movement, and are acting upon them in order to improve the effectiveness of their own political parties.

Where the Five Star Movement has been particularly successful is in campaigning, with this being demonstrated with the significant part they played in causing Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reform (which was much needed in Italian politics) to be rejected. Beppe Grillo is undeniably an engaging and entertaining speaker, particularly at his rallies, and campaigning in this style was shown to be very effective by the election of Donald Trump as US President. In addition, the Five Star Movement have pioneered new methods of online campaigning, with a lot of support having been gained from Beppe Grillo’s blog, which is published daily in Italian, English, and Japanese, and has been ranked as one of the top ten most visited blogs in the world. Although despite the Five Star Movement clearly being strong when it comes to social media and internet campaigning, not all of this has been above board, with an investigation by Buzzfeed finding that sites connected to the Five Star Movement are among Europe’s leading proprietors of fake or misleading news coverage, much of which has likely helped the Five Star Movement electorally.

Now, obviously the recipe for political success around the world is not for parties to copy the Five Star Movement. But, the Five Star Movement clearly show how in today’s world a political party can be built from the ground up very quickly. The Five Star Movement was only established towards the end of 2009 and already, just seven years later, it is the second largest party in Italy. The focus on internet campaigning has clearly been very significant to this success. Even since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the Leader of the Labour Party there has been talk of a Labour split, with moderates going off and forming their own party. In recent months there has even been talk of a split from pro-European members of the Conservative Party. What is said to have stopped all these people is their belief that a new party cannot be built from the ground up and be electorally successful. The Five Star Movement clearly disproves this hypothesis, by showing that if you’re campaigning on issues that enough people care about, and you have the ability to reach those people through the internet and social media, then you can be successful. British politicians who feel marginalised by their own parties would do well to remember this.

With a friend in the White House, will Putin soon have a friend in the Elysee Palace too?

President of Russia, Vladimir Putin

When Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States earlier this month, the media was quite rightly full of stories of how this may affect the relationship between the United States and Russia, given that Trump had made several statements over the course of the campaign which suggested that he was in favour of a very different relationship with Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin than his predecessors had pursued. Trump regularly praised Putin during the campaigning describing him as more of a leader than President Obama, and praising his “very strong control” over Russia. Following the election result, many in the Kremlin were understandably very pleased as Trump had seemingly been their favoured candidate over the course of the election process. Many in the Russian Government will likely feel that the election of Trump will have given them more scope to carry out the type of expansionist policy which they have pursued in the likes of Ukraine, and which has been opposed by Nato up to now. 

President-elect Donald Trump was very pro-Russia throughout the Presidential campaign.

Whilst it seems that Russia now have a friend in the White House in Donald Trump, it seems as though they may well soon have a friend in the Elysee Palace as well following the 2017 French Presidential Election.

The current frontrunners for the French Presidency (and the two candidates expected to progress from the first round into the run-off) are Marine Le Pen of the National Front and Francois Fillon, who is expected to wrap up the Republican nomination this weekend. In the past, both have made very positive statements with regard to Russia, in much the same way which Trump did throughout the US election campaign. 

Le Pen’s longstanding pro-Russia views are well known and have been well documented, but she built on that last week by describing how the trio of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and herself as world leaders “would be good for world peace”; whilst it is also known that the National Front has accepted loans from Russian-backed banks in order to finance their election campaigns. 

Marine Le Pen’s pro-Russia views have been well documented.

However, her likely opponent in the final round of the Presidential Election Francois Fillon has also espoused very pro-Russia views in the recent past, although these have been less publicised than Le Pen’s.

Francois Fillon has also been known to be pro-Russian and has a close relationship with Putin.

Between 2007 and 2012, Fillon served as Prime Minister of France under the Presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy (one of the candidates vanquished by Fillon and Alain Juppe in the first round of the Republican Presidential Primary last weekend). During this time he overlapped with Vladimir Putin who served as Prime Minister of Russia between 2008 and 2012, under the Presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. Following Donald Trump’s election to the US Presidency, Fillon was asked if he was at all worried about the possibility of impending close relations between the United States and Russia, he said he was not, saying: “I don’t only not worry about it, I wish for it.” Fillon has argued that all the sanctions levied against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine should be lifted, whilst he has also backed a coalition between Western countries and Russia, along with Bashar al-Assad, to defeat ISIS in Syria. On Tuesday, following Fillon’s unexpectedly strong showing in Sunday’s primary, the Kremlin described Putin as having “rather good relations” with Fillon. 

All this is worrying to many observers. With Le Pen and Fillon the overwhelming favourites to contest the final round of next year’s Presidential Election, it seems almost certain that Francois Hollande’s successor as French President will be sympathetic to Russia, and Russian expansionism. 

This adds to a growing trend across Europe of pro-Russian leaders winning power, or at least winning significant support. 

Viktor Orban, the populist Eurosceptic Prime Minister of Hungary has long favoured close ties with Russia, at least in terms of business; this led to Hungary agreeing a loan from the Kremlin believed to amount to €10.8 billion to finance the expansion of a nuclear power plant which supplies almost half of Hungary’s electricity. Previously the European Commission had sought to challenge the deal as they felt that it increased Hungary’s dependence on Russia, and would plunge Hungary into debt. 

Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban.

Another European leader who has sought to cultivate close relations with Putin is Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras who came to power as leader of the Syriza party in January 2015. Tsipras has looked to Russia for help with Greece’s economic travails and has described Russia as “Greece’s most important ally”. 

Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras.

There have also been signs that this pro-Russian sentiment is being echoed by others across Europe, in particular among some of the Eurosceptic political leaders who have come to the fore over the past couple of years, and who have recently been emboldened by the political shocks of Brexit and Trump being elected President. 

But, it is the development that France may soon have a President who is sympathetic to Putin along with the signs that the United States has one in Trump which will be most worrying to many other members of the international community. Most significant is the impact these countries have upon the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC is made up of fifteen member States but of these fifteen, five are permanent members: the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. Any of these permanent members have the power to block or veto a UN resolution. If the US and France were to begin offering support to Russia in the UN, then this would greatly increase Russia’s ability to act as they please in the international arena. 

Of course, although Trump espoused pro-Russian views during the election campaign, we do not know whether he will row back on this in the same way that he has on other issues, for example his pledge to appoint a Special Prosecutor for Hillary Clinton, which he has now confirmed that he won’t be taking any further. Indeed, it has been rumoured that both John Bolton and Mitt Romney are being considered for the role of Secretary of State. Both are known to be anti-Russia, and as such the Kremlin would likely be extremely unhappy if they were to be appointed. However, it does seem that Trump himself is keen for closer relations with Moscow. Similarly from what we can see that is the aim of both Le Pen and Fillon as well.

Trump could row back on his pro-Russia views by appointing Mitt Romney as Secretary of State.

Of course, it will be a while until we know anything for sure about how these recent political developments have changed international affairs in terms of Russia. But, on the face of it, it seems that the real political winner of 2016 politics so far, is Vladimir Putin and Russia. 

Is Matteo Renzi set to be the next casualty of the right-wing populist insurgency?

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Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

 

First David Cameron was forced to resign as Prime Minister after losing the EU Referendum, then Hillary Clinton was beaten to the Presidency by Donald Trump, now it looks as though Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi could be the next centrist political leader to be felled by the populist insurgency which has infiltrated world politics.

On 4 December, Italy will hold a constitutional referendum concerning the powers of the Parliament and the Prime Minister. Renzi believes that the Italian political system is not fit for purpose and he has grown increasingly frustrated by the slow pace at which legislation is made. Therefore, he has come up with a plan to streamline the system which he is putting to the people in next months referendum.

Italy currently has a bicameral legislature which is comprised of a lower house called the Chamber of Deputies which has 630 seats, and an upper house called the Senate of the Republic which has 315 elected members. The Italian system if often described as being perfectly symmetrical because both houses are elected at the same time and both are elected for a five year term. For legislation to pass into law the final version of every bill must pass through both houses, which is a key reason for the slow passage of legislation.

Renzi plans to reduce the Senate to 100 members (plus the ex-Presidents who are ‘Senators for life’), whilst the Senate would also cease to be directly elected. Instead, 95 Senators would be indirectly elected by the different regions in Italy, whilst the other five would be appointed by the Prime Minister. The changes proposed in the referendum also mean that some bills can be adopted unicamerally having only been approved by the Chamber of Deputies. Overall, the new constitutional provisions suggested in the referendum would curb the powers of the Senate (the source of much of the legislative gridlock) and increase the power of the Prime Minister, which is why it was no surprise that many of Renzi’s opponents described him as being ‘undemocratic’ or ‘authoritarian’ for trying to make these changes.

However, the content of the proposed constitutional changes is not really the issue here (in reality, the new constitutional provisions are pretty dry).

Renzi has been Italian Prime Minister for two years now and is already relatively unpopular amongst the electorate. Following recent events like the UK voting to leave the European Union and the United States electing Donald Trump to the Presidency, Italy’s populists are now sufficiently emboldened to believe that this referendum gives them the opportunity to unseat Renzi.

Indeed, Renzi himself has stated that if he is to lose the referendum then he will resign as Prime Minister. This was a big mistake. What it means is that the constitutional referendum has instead been turned into a referendum on Renzi’s leadership, which his opponents believe they can comfortably win.

The key opponents of the reform proposed by Renzi are the syncretic populist Five Star Movement, which is headed by former comedian Beppe Grillo; the far-right Northern League (or Lega Nord); and Forza Italia, the party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. These groups have seen that the referendum is an opportunity to unseat the centrist Renzi, and have been travelling around the country whipping up support for their cause.

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Former comedian Beppe Grillo, the founder of the Italian Five Star Movement. 

By calling the referendum, Renzi believed that he had tapped into the desire of Italians to see the political system changed and made more streamlined. However, although he was correct that this was an idea that was popular amongst Italians, he didn’t realise that it wasn’t their top priority. For most Italians their priority was seeing a return to economic growth and a thriving economy, and the end to the unpopular bailouts of Italy’s weak banks which have usually been supported by Renzi. Many Italians blame Renzi for their dire economic situations and as a result feel that unseating him is more important than enacting constitutional change.

Currently, opinion polls suggest that Renzi is on course for a loss in the upcoming referendum with the ‘No’ campaign’s advantage estimated at between five and seven points. This does though exclude undecided voters which could be as much as 26 percent of the electorate.

As it stands though, it looks as though Renzi is set to lose the referendum, and as a result will be forced to resign as Prime Minister. This could lead to Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star Movement sweeping into power. Given the Five Star Movement’s Euroscepticism, if they were to ascend to power then we could well see another referendum but this time one which concerned Italy’s membership of the European Union.

There is of course the chance that Renzi wins. In recent days Renzi has taken a leaf out of Donald Trump’s book by describing Italian politics as a ‘swamp’ (perhaps a reference to Trump’s popular pledge to ‘drain the swamp’ of Washington D.C.), with Renzi saying that the only way to improve this would be to vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum.

However, it remains to be seen whether Renzi has done enough to survive. Given the way world politics seems to be moving toward a populist and anti-establishment viewpoint, don’t be surprised if Renzi is defeated and is subsequently forced out of power.

Although most people have been looking at next year’s Presidential Election in France, and Federal Elections in Germany as the next chance of populist politicians to have success, this referendum in Italy gives them a chance sooner than many expected. Currently, it looks as though the populists will succeed in forcing out another centrist administration, and that the populist takeover of world politics will continue.