Grillo and Italy’s Five Star Movement – Radical Opposition in the Face of the Dire Need for Reforms

Beppe Grillo, a political comedian well-known in Italy, is the leading figure of the Five-Star-Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, M5S), which achieved 25.5 % of the vote in its first electoral outing during the 2013 Italian General Election, finishing third behind Pier Luigi Bersani’s social-democratic Democratic Party and Berlusconi’s centre-right The People of Freedom. Bersani’s party achieved a majority in the first legislative chamber but failed to do so in the second chamber, the Senate. Thus, the role of Kingmaker fell to Grillo’s movement, since the social-democratic party refuses to ally itself with the outlawed Berlusconi. However, the Five Star Movement, led by its eccentric leader, refuses to cooperate with any of the established parties. Hence, three months after the elections, Italy remains in a political limbo without a government. The question is why so many Italians put their trust in a movement which is obviously not interested in governing and what ramifications the M5S’s attitude of continuing resistance entail for Italy.

Image courtesy of Pasere, © 2012, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Pasere, © 2012, some rights reserved.

Grillo’s M5S is driven by the perception that the old parties, Italy’s ancien regime, are incapable of pursuing modernisation and reforming themselves. This is one of the main reasons why 8.7 million Italians coming from all regions and spread out across all social ranks cast their vote for the Five Star Movement – it is an expression of contempt for the corrupt political caste, which is accused of enriching itself at the expense of the common people whose living standards are constantly deteriorating.

The Guardian queued M5S with other anti-establishment forces, such as environmental activists, internet libertarians, the anti-free market campaigners of Occupy Wall Street, and called it a “political expression of the net generation.” The other parties and foreign media have often criticised Grillo for being a populist (the German social-democratic chancellor candidate Steinbrück called him a “clown”, not only referring to Grillo’s original profession but also to this political attitude). Given the way Grillo presents himself, these accusations are understandable. For instance, he established “Vaffanculo Day” (“vaffanculo” being a very rude Italian word to tell somebody to get lost) aimed at shaming the established elite. He is also often criticised for attacking other politicians on superficial issues without providing any valid alternatives. After his success at the ballot box, he also boastfully predicted the downfall of the current political system within six months.

Grillo and the M5S are the ultimate expression of discontent by a significant part of the Italian population for their political system – for this simple reason, they must be taken seriously, especially outside of Europe. Their way of doing politics might indeed be deemed to be populist, as an unhelpful radical opposition aimed at nothing but blocking and undermining the established political parties and practices. Many of the ideas the movement presents are, nevertheless, quite progressive and seem to be appropriate for reforming Italy’s corrupt political landscape. Grillo’s followers, for instance, call for more direct democracy, a two-session limit for MPs, and a ban on convicted criminals to run for public office. However, M5S is trapped in a fundamental bind – it seeks to reform a political system it despises. It runs in elections as a part of a representative democracy but does not want to take over political responsibilities; it calls for reforms, but waives the opportunity to induce them by refusing to support a government led by an established party (which most likely would be Bersani’s social-democrats). M5S understands that in order to be able to bring about change, it would be necessary for them to become part of the very political system it so much condemns. Up to the present day, Italy remains a political stalemate, although there are first signs for M5S fundamental opposition to wane – recently, the movement’s senators voted for a social-democrat to become the Senate’s speaker. M5S has to realise that it does not have the prerogative on change, since Bersani and his party also sees itself as an engine for political reform, although without applying Grillo’s radical rhetoric. Ultimately, Grillo will also have to realise that it is one thing to tell everybody to back off and a different thing to be a constructive political force that acts for the well being of the country’s citizen. Italy remains in limbo, and given the country’s economic and political performance, it needs reforms as soon as possible; M5S refusal to initiate these reforms by waiting for the political system to come crashing down, as Grillo threatened, will only contribute to Italy’s decline and the people’s discontent. Grillo and M5S have to commit themselves to a political compromise with, as they might put it, the lesser of two evils, namely the social democrats, who have also made it their priority to reanimate Italy’s political system with fresh ideas. After all, this would be the only way to alter Italy’s political face without risking complete social upheaval with an unpredictable outcome.

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