Giovanni Favia
World News /16 Jun 2017

The Rise of Italy’s Five Star Movement

Populism has surged in recent years in the West. From Brexit to Trump, countless voters have been expressing their resentment towards the establishment by choosing political outsiders who promise to disrupt the status quo. One study estimates that populist parties have the support of over 1/3 of the world’s voters. In Italy, the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), founded only in 2009, quickly gained momentum and support among Italian voters, culminating most notably in the elections of Virginia Raggi and Chiara Appendino to the mayor ships of Rome and Turin, respectively, in 2016. Given the power of populism to shape politics, it’s worth examining the characteristics associated with populism and how they explain the rise of the M5S.

The Archetypical Populist

Populism is a rebellion of the common man against the elites and the system. It arises from the common man being fed up with 1) wealth and opportunity gaps 2) perceived social threats from foreigners and ethnic minorities 3) the “establishment elites” in positions of power, and 4) the government not working efficiently for them. These sentiments tend to lead to citizens elevating strong-willed leaders to power.

Populist leaders are typically confrontational and authoritarian, which often leads to them violently oppressing and imprisoning their opposition. What were once democracies descend into dictatorships, as strongmen use dissent as an excuse to restore social order. Populist leaders also often use conflicts with other countries to coalesce domestic support. Classic populist policies include military fetishizing, protectionism, nationalism, infrastructure improvements, greater budget deficits and capital controls.

Benito Mussolini

In the period leading up to World War II, Italy was swept away by widespread populism. Italy’s overreliance on the agricultural sector caused it to lag behind Germany and the UK. High inflation and unemployment among ex-soldiers following World War I resulted in widespread strikes, factory seizures, and social unrest. Italy’s democratically elected leaders failed to resolve these issues; Italy cycled through 4 prime ministers in 3 years.

Taking advantage of the tumult, Benito Mussolini presented himself as “a man who is ruthless and energetic enough to make a clean sweep” to restore Italy to its past glory through territorial expansion. In 1922, he led a paramilitary force of 30,000 disillusioned ex-soldiers and frustrated middle-class property owners in The March of Rome, which led to his forming a new government. Dissenters were quickly suppressed through intimidation or assassination.

Mussolini’s goal was to turn Italy into a modern industrialized state. His policy of “state capitalism” meant the government would control private businesses but actual ownership would remain in private hands. He enacted protectionist tariffs and capital controls to galvanize the Italian economy. These policies initially led to economic improvements, until growth stagnated during the Great Depression. Other key policies included sending Jews to concentration camps, censorship of the media, replacing elected officials with appointees, and military expansion to Ethiopia and the Balkans.

Five Star Movement

In 2009, comedian Beppe Grillo and web strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio realized that the Internet could be used to launch a new political movement. Grillo used his blog and the social networking site to bring people together on local campaign issues and for elections. Like the political climate during Mussolini’s rise, the Five Star Movement drew its initial strength from widespread disgust with the political elites. The movement served as a reaction against Italy’s corrupt and self-serving politics that PM Silvio Berlusconi epitomized. Five Star’s goals included cutting by 80% MP salaries (currently the highest in Europe), making all government financial statements transparent to the public and transitioning to a direct democracy via the Internet. This was very resonant with people, given that Italy ranks 129th in the world for trust in its politicians and 135th for wastefulness in public spending.

Unlike most other populist movements, M5S doesn’t fit neatly into the traditional far-left or far-right ideology of populist movements. The five stars refer to 1) publicly owned water 2) sustainable transport 3) sustainable development 4) right to Internet access 5) environmentalism. Its policies are an eclectic mix of anti-establishment fervor, environmentalism, anti-globalism and tech utopianism. Supporters of M5S come from all over the political spectrum. Their strongest constituencies are the unemployed and young voters, though they are also popular with teachers and blue-collar workers. The party soared in just 4 years, garnering the 2nd most votes in 2013. Its polls have been hovering around 30% ever since.

Despite being united in M5S’s goal of disrupting the status quo, its voters remain deeply divided among a range of issues. For instance, last January the Five Star Movement reversed its Euro-skepticism position by swapping its alliance with UKIP for the pro-EU Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Meanwhile, its position on immigration has remained ambivalent, in contrast to the xenophobia that’s common in populism.

Consequently, the Five Star Movement is more of a novelty, rather than populist history repeating itself again. Although the roots of M5S share some characteristics with populism, the movement ultimately lacks a clear nationalist agenda. Bruising defeats in municipal elections last Sunday suggest political immaturity and a lack of organizational structure. Key archetypes of populism, such as using fear or violence to suppress dissidents, are also missing. It would be unfair to compare M5S with Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts. M5S started out as a party rallying against the corruption of the government. However, given the defection of 18 of its 106 MPs and Mayor Raggi’s ongoing legal scandals, it is ultimately doomed to become just another corrupt party of the establishment…

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