Road to Rome: The organisational and political success of the M5S

The Five Star Movement (M5S) obtained two major victories in the second round of municipal elections on 19 June 2016 in Rome and Turin. Rome attracted the most international attention but it is M5S’ victory in Turin that is likely the most consequential for them and other European anti-establishment parties.

In Rome, a municipality with 2.8 million people and an annual budget of €5 billon, Virginia Raggi (age 37) gained doubled the votes of her contender Roberto Giachetti (age 55). In Turin, a city with a population of 900,000 and an annual budget of €1.69 billion, Chiara Appendino (age 31) outstripped Piero Fassino (age 66) by about 10 percentage points.

Giachetti and Fassino were the best candidates the M5S could hope to compete against: they were not only long-time professional politicians (Fassino won his first election three years before the oldest of the two candidates of the M5S was born), but also, important members of the ruling Democratic Party. Although disaffection towards political parties and politics in general is strong in Europe at large, Italians outclass citizens of almost every other European country in how strongly they distrust party politics. In November 2015 according to the regular Eurobarometer survey only 10.5% of Italians declared to trust parties. Just before the general election of 2013, and the spectacular result of the M5S, it was 4.2, the lowest value ever register by such a survey across the continent.

And it is not just corruption that outrages Italians — corruption played an important role in the municipal campaign in Rome — but also the perceived immutability of the political establishment. The M5S burst on the national scene in 2007. Using large protest rallies to demand the introduction of a law limiting the number of parliamentary terms to two and conditioning eligibility to the absence of any criminal conviction.

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                                                     Italy in black and weighted average in red.                                                  Sources: Transparency International and Eurobarometer

On a national level, the M5S performed reasonably well in these elections obtaining on average 20% of votes (though down from the 26% obtained in 2013 and 21% in 2014). But it did not win big: it competed in 249 elections and won 38 (or 15%). Electorally, the M5S consolidated without significantly improving its electoral clout. But the success of the M5S must be measured at the organisational and political level.

The Movement as organisation demonstrated that it could select successful candidates. Yes, the M5S brand did help Movement’s candidates, but in municipal elections candidates for mayor are important, contrary to general or European elections in which candidates are almost uninfluential since voters tend to vote for the party and not for the person.

The capacity to select competitive candidates at a local level mostly through online primaries (although the candidate for Turin was chosen in a closed-door meeting of local members) demonstrates that a political movement, national in scope, but with no nation-wide bureaucracy can win votes. Beppe Grillo, the Movement’s founder, maintains a small staff in charge of vetting candidates and a very small coordinating network. After the 2013 general election, political analysts predicted that the Movement would have needed to “normalise” by creating a national organisation: but this did not happen. In 2016 the Movement still has no central office, not even a phone number or postal address.

At the political level the result in Turin demonstrated that the Movement can offer an attractive and coherent alternative to traditional centre-left and centre-right coalitions. And even in a city that, contrary to the situation in Rome, was considered to be well administered. In Rome the Movement could capitalise on the spectacular disaster created by previous administrations, but in Turin the rhetoric of anti-politics was necessarily less effective. The election in Turin demonstrates that the Movement’s fortunes do not only rely on the resentment towards the political establishment but also by offering a different perspective on what politics is ought to be: service, transparency and more direct participation as opposed to professional competence and traditional ideologies.

M5S politicians unrelentingly preach that traditional political identities are dead and a large part of the electorate seems to agree. The electoral traction of the M5S depends on its capacity to gain the vote of former left-wing as much as right-wing voters who feel that the economy and political establishment has failed them. The key to interpreting the Turin results, which certainly have the potential to spread at the national level (a general election will be held in the next two years), is that anti-politics although frequently adopted is not the only language spoken by the candidates of the M5S.

Indeed, economic anxiety, along with unemployment, is significantly more pronounced among M5S voters. And this is true for most of the protest parties that emerged in Europe in the last ten years. They have mixed in an electorally sensible way anti-establishment and anti-globalisation requests; they ask for more state-intervention, restoration of national (or sub-national) economic sovereignty and more democracy, envisioned as a shift of power from technocrats back to the people where it belongs.

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Source: Electoral survey ITANES 2013

The consolidation of the electoral weight of the M5S in the last round of municipal elections should also be read in light of the diminished importance of Beppe Grillo within the Movement. Observing the number of articles published by the two major Italian newspapers (Corriere della Sera and Repubblica) containing the terms ‘beppe grillo’ and ‘cinque stelle’ (five stars), it appears that since the beginning of 2015, articles mentioning the Movement have outnumbered articles mentioning Beppe Grillo. Indeed in November 2014 the Movement, in an online consultation among registered members, elected a ‘Directory’ (a board) of five MPs with the role of replacing Beppe Grillo’s leadership. By reducing its dependence on the charismatic (as well as cumbersome) figure of its founder, the Movement has evolved and has gained capacity to manoeuvre, especially at the local level where candidates are freer to define their own identity. Both candidates in Rome and Turin were very different from the image commonly associated to Beppe Grillo: less vulgar, more soft-spoken, more thoughtful and more moderate.

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Attention dedicated by the two major Italian newspapers to Beppe Grillo and the Movement. Source corriere.it and repubblica.it

The M5S is no longer a novelty of Italian politics. It is a serious contender for the premiership of the Italian government. A new electoral law will introduce a second round if no party is able to obtain more than 40% of the national vote. According to polls the M5S will prevail in the second round either against a centre-right or a centre-left coalition led by the Democratic Party.

The M5S is sustained electorally by a coherent mix of economic anxiety and profound distrust towards party politics and technocratic institutions. This, once the M5S assumes a governing role, translates into precise expectations that so far are not supported by a well-defined program. With the exception of a proposal to introduce a guaranteed minimum income for all citizens and a timid campaign to abandon the common currency, it is far from clear what the Movement intends to do once in power or if it will be able to govern at all given the fluidity of the leadership and the heterogeneity of the electorate.

Governing complex municipalities such as Turin and Rome, which are also big employers, will clarify where the Movement stands on important issues, such administrative competence  or  migrant integration policies or the industrial relations of a heavily union dominated public sector.

It will also test the managerial capacity of a Movement, which has set itself up against the professionalization of politics. Perhaps its most profound test is whether the Movement can effectively reduce the distrust between citizens and those the citizens elect.

Francesco Bailo is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney