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.

The ‘No’ vote in the Italian referendum wasn’t a populist revolt in the style of Trump.

Matteo Renzi, who lost his attempt to reform Italy's stagnant political system.
Matteo Renzi, who lost his attempt to reform Italy’s stagnant political system.

Yesterday Italian voters went to the polls to vote in a referendum concerning the Italian political system and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s attempts to end the gridlock which has plagued it for many years. Despite opinion polls prior to polling day suggesting that the result would be extremely close, the ‘No’ campaign won a decisive victory, with the reforms rejected by a margin of 59% to 41%, and Renzi subsequently set to tender his resignation later today. Following the result many were quick to place it in the same bracket as the result of UK’s EU Referendum, the election of Donald Trump as US President, and the rise of Marine Le Pen in France. In short, as another victory for anti-establishment populists, and part of a growing trend across the world.

However, this analysis is deeply flawed, and far too simplistic. Whilst anti-establishment feeling was certainly a factor in the result, it was by no means the most important factor, and it is very difficult to equate this result with the likes of the EU Referendum and the US Presidential Election.

Rather than a populist revolt, the referendum result was simply a vote against Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

During the referendum campaign, Renzi (who at that point figured that he had a pretty good chance of winning) announced that were he to lose the referendum then he would resign as Prime Minister. After this statement, Italy’s opposition parties united somewhat in an attempt to unseat Renzi.

This ‘rag bag’ group (as Renzi himself termed it) included the populist left-leaning Five Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo, the far-right Northern League, and the centre-right Forza Italia, led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In addition, some members of Renzi’s Democratic Party campaigned against the reforms, with the Democratic Party being such a ‘big tent’ party that there were many who weren’t particularly enamoured with Renzi’s leadership.

The most interesting case is that of Silvio Berlusconi. In 2006 Berlusconi himself, then serving as Prime Minister, attempted constitutional reform. Similarly to yesterday’s referendum, the 2006 referendum aimed to streamline the Italian political system by giving more power to the Prime Minister. Berlusconi’s reform was defeated at the ballot box by 61.3% — 38.7%, incidentally a larger defeat that Renzi’s was yesterday. But what this proves is that Berlusconi himself has himself been strongly in favour of reform in the past, but his reasons for campaigning against this reform rested more on a desire to remove Renzi as Prime Minister than anything else.

Realistically, although in this referendum voters have overwhelmingly backed the side supported by the populist parties the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, this is no guarantee that an actual election would go the same way. It was no surprise that following the referendum, the centre-right party, Forza Italia, said that they didn’t believe an election should be called, and that they though that the next Prime Minister should come from Renzi’s Democratic Party. The truth is that there is no way that the likes of the Five Star Movement, Northern League, and Forza Italia would be able to work together in Government, and therefore they would not have been able to combine to defeat Renzi in an actual election. However, when Renzi turned the referendum into a confidence vote on his leadership, he enabled an alliance between all opposition parties, and his fate was settled. At a time when Renzi’s popularity was hardly through the roof, in large part because of Italy’s economic woes, it was undeniably stupid for Renzi to stake his future on the referendum.

In addition, it is incorrect that the referendum was purely an expression of anti-establishment feeling. Yes, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement were one of the main opponents of the constitutional reform, and as a result anti-establishment feeling certainly played a part, however it was not as significant as many have claimed. For a start, look at how many members of the supposed ‘establishment’ supported the campaign against the proposed reforms. Silvio Berlusconi and his establishment centre-right party, Forza Italia, have already been mentioned, but there was also former Prime Minister Mario Monti as well as a fair few senior members of Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party. Although the establishment Five Star Movement were prominent during the campaign, it was not a campaign where it was simply establishment versus anti-establishment — as was the case during the US Presidential Campaign. The sheer number of establishment figures on the ‘No’ side suitably demonstrates this. In addition, it must be remembered that Renzi himself was never really considered a particularly establishment figure. He came to power as Prime Minister from the relatively obscure position of Mayor of Florence, and he has taken on a somewhat anti-establishment persona during his time as Prime Minister (with a vision of a government which could wipe out the corruption which had plagued Italian politics for decades), particularly during this referendum campaign. He alluded to Donald Trump’s ‘drain the swamp’ rhetoric during the campaign when he described the Italian political system as a ‘swamp’ where he would be unable to remain if he didn’t pass the proposed reforms. Given the dramatic change that Renzi wanted the Italian political system to undergo, it is perhaps more apt to describe him as anti-establishment than his opponents during the referendum.

No, rather than a vote against the establishment, this was a vote against Renzi himself. Although he came to power with promises of constitutional change, he also promised an end to the economic malaise that has afflicted Italy for many years. The referendum result is more to do with Italy’s continuing economic difficulties than anything else. Renzi perhaps overestimated Italy’s desire for constitutional change ahead of economic progress, and sorely paid the price. For most Italians, rather than constitutional change their priorities were seeing a return to a thriving economy and economic growth, and the end to the unpopular bailouts of big banks. Renzi’s failure to deliver in these areas made him considerably unpopular and so when he staked his future on the referendum result, the voters saw their chance.

Add to this the complex nature of the reform, very few people understood exactly what it was that was being asked, and there were even reports that start-ups were charging $150 an hour for classes explaining the referendum question. Contrary to what is often claimed, most who vote are not keen to vote in favour of something they don’t fully understand. With the complex nature of the constitutional reform, is was unsurprising that most were keener to keep the status quo, because at least then they know exactly where they stand.

Rather than a vote for anti-establishment politics, this was a vote against Renzi, pure and simple. Although Renzi has arguably done some good things, he doesn’t seem to have done enough to gain the continued confidence of the Italian people, although his statement yesterday suggests that he does not intend to retire from politics and could yet seek to return as Prime Minister in the near future. Although Renzi served as Prime Minister for under three years, he is still the fourth-longest serving PM in almost thirty years, which tells you basically all you need to know about Italy’s infamously volatile politics. Bearing this in mind, a political return for Renzi in the future is by no means out of the question, and in fact it would not be at all surprising.

Yes, the far-right lost in Austria, but it was hardly a good result for political moderates.

Far-right candidate Norbert Hofer (right) was defeated by Alexander Van der Bellen (left) in Austria's Presidential Election.
Far-right candidate Norbert Hofer (right) was defeated by Alexander Van der Bellen (left) in Austria’s Presidential Election.

Yesterday was the conclusion of the re-running of the Austrian Presidential run-off between Independent candidate (and former Green Party leader) Alexander Van der Bellen, and Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party.

The run-off was originally held in May and the result was extremely close with Van der Bellen winning by just 0.7 percent. But then, in June, the result was annulled after allegations of voting irregularities. Yesterday was the re-run, with opinion polls prior to polling day suggesting that the result would be similarly close, with the far-right Hofer narrowly leading in much of the polling. This led to Nigel Farage boldly predicting that Hofer would be the next populist right-winger to win a major election.

However, ultimately this was wrong, with Van der Bellen winning, and by a considerably wider margin than his win in the original election in May. Although all of the votes are yet to be counted, projections suggest that Van der Bellen has won by roughly 53 percent to 46 percent, and Hofer has conceded defeat.

Many moderates were quick to rejoice, heralding the result as a ray of light in a year which has seen a vote for Brexit in the EU Referendum, the election of Donald Trump ahead of Hillary Clinton, the defeat of Matteo Renzi in Italy, and the continued rise of Marine Le Pen in France. However, this analysis glosses over the results somewhat.

Hofer is a genuine far-right politician. He has stated that Islam has ‘no place in Austria’, and has regularly referred to Islam and immigration as being an existential threat to Austrian identity. Hofer has also been strongly criticised by some for wearing the blue cornflower, which is an old Nazi symbol, which is often used to represent ideas of pan-Germanism. In addition, Hofer has long been a gun enthusiast, and has described carrying a gun as a ‘natural consequence’ of immigration. Despite pitching himself as a moderate outside member of the Freedom Party, Hofer has in fact worked his way up through the party’s ranks for many years, and was a close advisor to previous leaders who were even more overtly extreme.

Although Hofer lost, he received 46 percent of the vote. In 2000, Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of Marine) received 18 percent of the vote in the French Presidential Election, and this was considered to be as popular as the far-right could get in Europe. However, now a far-right candidate has managed 46% of the vote, with Hofer’s share much, much higher in the countryside and the smaller towns — in much the same way as Donald Trump’s was during the US Presidential Election, although Hofer makes Trump look like a moderate.

Hofer’s loss is certainly pleasing for moderates in some regard. A Hofer win would have embolden far-right candidates throughout over European countries. The likes of Geert Wilders and the Dutch Party of Freedom, Matteo Salvini and the Italian Northern League, Frauke Petry and the Alternative for Germany, and Marine Le Pen and the National Front. Hofer’s loss will hopefully have stunted the momentum of these parties.

However, the fact that a far-right party managed to poll 46 percent in a European Presidential election should not be ignored. It should serve to further highlight to deep disconnect that many voters in Europe (and around the world) feel with the political establishment, and the establishment should be working overtime in order to correct this, before it’s too late.

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

p_matteo-renzi.jpg
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.