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.

Is the field for the 2017 French Presidential Election shaping up to be the lowest calibre ever?

If you think that choosing between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, then spare a thought for French voters, given the choice of candidates in their upcoming Presidential election.

Although ten parties have already announced that they will be fielding candidates in the election, there are really only three parties who stand any chance of winning the presidency. These are: The Republicans, the Socialist Party, and the National Front. Currently, only the National Front have selected their candidate for the Presidency, with The Republicans and the Socialist Party set to hold open primaries in due course to decide upon their candidates.

The National Front’s candidate for the Presidency is party leader Marine Le Pen, and the policy positions that she has advocated throughout her career reflect the worst of populist politics. In the past, Le Pen has advocated a complete moratorium on legal immigration, ostensibly as a solution to unemployment, as well as a crackdown on illegal immigration. She has pledged to restore French relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whilst cutting off relations with Turkey who she has accused of supporting terrorism. In addition, similarly to Donald Trump, Le Pen has advocated improved relations with Russia, and has suggested that Russia’s actions in Ukraine were misunderstood. Naturally (for populist politicians at least), Le Pen also wants to leave the Eurozone, leave the European Union, and have a referendum on the reinstatement of capital punishment. Perhaps most well-known of Le Pen’s policy pronouncements, is her pledge for a crackdown on Islam. Le Pen’s repeated pronouncements of the links between Immigration, Islam, and Terrorism, have rapidly gained support in a country where many are terrified after recent terror attacks, and are looking for someone to blame. Le Pen has dangerously used these attacks for political point scoring with the result that she now leads Presidential election opinion polls. However, with the French electoral system, which includes a run-off between the top performing candidates from the first round of voting (assuming no candidate gains 50 percent of the vote in the first round) it looks as though Le Pen could be defeated by whoever she faces in the run-off. Nonetheless, Le Pen’s recent success and popularity showcases the dangerous forward march of the populist right in Europe and around the world.

As for The Republicans, fourteen candidates have thrown their hats into the ring thus far, and more are set to follow (making the French Republican primary much like the American Republican primary). These declared candidates include: former Prime Ministers François Fillon and Alain Juppé, and former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Fillon was Prime Minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, and has spent recent years being one of the strongest critics of President Hollande’s economic policy, as well as his policy of intervention in Syria. In 2015, Fillon accused Hollande of presiding over the ‘pauperisation’ of France, whilst during his time as Minister for Education he was strongly in favour of restricting the wearing of ‘religious signs’ in public. However, with Fillon polling only around 10–12% it seems unlikely that he can challenge Juppé and Sarkozy who are the clear frontrunners. Juppé was Prime Minister between 1995 and 1997, and is the current Mayor of Bordeaux. He could comfortably be described as a moderate centre-right politician, perhaps one of the few voices of reason in the Republican primary. However, he is well-known as a poor public speaker, without the ability to fire up rallies in the way that the populist right have done so successfully, which could hurt him as the race goes on. Despite this, Juppé is currently ahead in the polls by around ten percent.

However, standing between Juppé and the Presidential nomination of the Republican Party is former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Since losing the Presidency to François Hollande in 2012, Sarkozy has looked to rebuild his career. When he hasn’t been pretending to be brilliant at cycling up mountains, he has reinvented himself in the style of Donald Trump, as a populist right-winger hoping that the rising tide of anger in France can propel him to the Presidency. Sarkozy has described France as being on the ‘edge of an abyss’, which is very similar language to that used by Donald Trump in his speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in June. Sarkozy has pledged to follow a hardline stance on immigration, and has been one of the most vocal supporters of banning the Burkini throughout France. In addition, he plans to re-establish the authority of the State, and introduce compulsory military service for those who are not employed or in full-time education at the age of eighteen. It has been clear throughout the campaign that Sarkozy and his advisers feel that the National Front is the main competition in the upcoming election, and that a campaign filled with populist rhetoric is the way forward.

He is probably right. Given the unpopularity of the current President François Hollande, it doesn’t look like the Socialist Party have any chance of retaining the presidency. In 2012, Sarkozy became the first French President since 1981 not to win a second term in office. But it is looking increasingly likely that Hollande will follow suit. Hollande is now the most unpopular President in recent French history, and recent polls have suggested that around ninety percent of the French electorate disapprove of his performance as President. Many French voters feel that Hollande’s handling of the recent terror attacks on French soil has left a lot to be desired, whilst rising unemployment has also heavily contributed to Hollande’s unpopularity. Polling suggests that were Hollande to run for a second term as President, he would be defeated in the first round of the election. Hollande’s potential run for a second term is further complicated by deep divisions within his own party. Several ministers have resigned from the Hollande Government in order to run against him in the upcoming Presidential primary. These ministers include Arnaud Montebourg who was Minister for Industrial Renewal from 2012–14. Montebourg has accused Hollande of a betrayal of the ‘ideals of the left’ following Hollande’s adoption of a more pro-business stance in recent months, with Montebourg running as a firebrand left-wing candidate and promising to bring an end to austerity in France. Another individual who could complicate things for Hollande is Emmanuel Macron, who recently resigned as Economy Minister in order to begin a centrist bid for the Presidency. Macron has never held elected office but has been gaining popularity in recent months. Given the unpopularity of the Socialist Party (which stems from Hollande’s personal unpopularity), Macron is perhaps the only chance the left have of retaining the Presidency. Throughout his time in politics he has successfully distanced himself from the Socialist Party, painting himself as an independent centrist. Ironically, he may now be their only hope.

Therefore, with Hollande looking like he stands no chance of retaining the Presidency, and with it looking like the Socialist Party stand no chance of making the Presidential run-off, it looks as though the French Presidential Election is set to degenerate into a slugging match between members of the populist right. Don’t be surprised if the the two candidates who end up fighting it out for the Presidency are Marine Le Pen and Nicolas Sarkozy, who will compete throughout the election with scary pronouncements for France’s future and strongly worded rhetoric regarding immigration and Islam.

Ultimately, with the current leader in the opinion polls (Marine Le Pen) someone who has previously been on trial charged with anti-Muslim hate speech, and the two most unpopular Presidents in recent French history (Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande) leading the way in the upcoming election, the 2017 French Presidential Election does look set to be one of the lowest calibre elections of modern times, not just in France but in the world.