They had come to Parliament with the promise of “opening it up like a can of tuna” and have ended up having a party open to the gutter due to multiple crises and divisions. The parable of the 5 Star Movement —the political formation that emerged in the heat of social discontent over the 2008 recession and founded by a comedian, Beppe Grillo, and a computer guru, Gianroberto Casaleggio—, which in 2018 became the first party in Italy , four years later glimpses the path of decline.
Another Italian government?
The last serious injury came two weeks ago with the departure of the party of one of its founders and former leader, Luigi Di Maio, current Foreign Minister of the Government of Mario Draghi. Di Maio has taken with him 60 parliamentarians, a third of the total formation that until that moment had the largest group in the chamber. A turn that redraws the Italian political landscape, after a year of the rise of populism and a few months before the general elections scheduled for spring 2023. If nothing goes wrong. In recent days, the concern of the transversal majority that supports the Executive has been increasing.
Draghi advanced a day his return from the NATO summit in Madrid. His predecessor, Giuseppe Conte, who now leads what remains of the M5S, a few hours earlier had shown his anger after some media published that Draghi had asked Grillo, the comedian and Alma mater of the party. “It seems serious to me that a technical prime minister interferes in the life of the parties that support him,” Conte, himself twice prime minister without having been a candidate for elections, once said.
There were threats of withdrawal of support for the Government although, finally, after a face-to-face meeting on Wednesday, the crisis seems to have calmed down. The Government passed on Thursday, also with the support of the grillini, a motion of confidence on a decree of economic aid. But the background sea is still there and threatens a summer of turbulence for the Executive, supported by a heterogeneous majority, in a strange marriage of convenience that keeps together, under the umbrella of Draghi, from Matteo Salvini’s League to the Democratic Party .
From the protest to the Government
“The 5 Stars at some point decided, contrary to what Grillo had wanted, to be a parliamentary force first and then a government one, instead of remaining an extra-parliamentary protest movement,” says Stefano Feltri, director of the Italian newspaper Domani. “It was not an obvious choice because in recent history we have other movements that have been left out of Parliament. When that evolution began, a trajectory began that has led to the current problems. Because they are not a party from the point of view of internal organization and representation, they do not have a mechanism for selecting the vertices, they do not have a programmatic base because they do not have behind them a part of the country defined by common demands”.
Feltri looks at the problems that have brought the party to the point where it is, after poor results in recent municipal elections and polls that do not give them more than 11% (from 33 four years ago). . “The original balance has imploded but they have not built a new one. They could no longer be the protest movement after winning the elections but they did not know what to do with that victory because they were basically a collective of protests, petitions, united by discontent but without homogeneity of purpose”, he adds.
Somehow, after having filled the squares for years —including the mythical Piazza San Giovanni in Rome, once a symbol of the great demonstrations of the Italian left— to the cry of “vaffanculo” (“to fuck you”) by Grillo and an “anti-caste” speech, and after having filled the ballot boxes with ballots, the movement has died of success, or at least has been seriously injured. This is how the Italian political scientist Piero Ignazi explains it: “It is the problem of a too rapid success that did not allow the creation of a ruling class, which lacked the two referents, the two founders. One, Casaleggio, because he died [en 2016], and the other, Grillo, because he preferred to withdraw a bit and let the Five Star Movement go its way a bit, which would have to find a new leadership in former Prime Minister Conte. The problem, however, arose there, because Giuseppe Conte’s transition from prime minister to head of the party was very conflictive, very difficult. And it caused a strong crisis within the M5S because Conte was a good prime minister, but he turned out to be a bad party leader, not up to the situation”.
The fact that precisely Di Maio, the author of the last great split, had been the promoter of Conte, a lawyer and university professor unknown until two years ago to the vast majority of Italians and who found himself managing the effects of a pandemic world, gives the measure of the depth of the internal divisions.
The “viral” battles
“The parable was predictable even for those who were observing from the outside before entering because it was evident that there was a consensus linked to blowing the fire of the protest, rather, of the protests, very different from each other, and with little study behind and little proposal”, says a person who has worked with the party for years -and who therefore requests anonymity- and who has lived from within the open crises in this stage of government. “All without an intermediary through social networks, in a mixture that they believed to be virtuous, between a person with a high degree of visibility like Grillo and a person with great intelligence and organizational capacity like Casaleggio and a group of young people who, Often believing it, they have joined to launch battles that are also very viral, precisely from the point of media seduction.” “One half of those who remain want to stay in government, and the other half to leave,” adds the same source. This is the new dividing line in a formation that brought together the discontent of all colors.
“The M5S has had all the versions of populism within it,” says Feltri, “from the anti-democratic to the hyper-democratic, from the utopia of total and direct democracy against the oligarchies to a dynastic form of power, with Casaleggio father and Casaleggio son, with the same role and consulting contract; from encompassing the right that later ended up in part in the League to being the reference of the radical left that did not have parliamentary representation. The ‘5 Stars’ have been fully populist, according to Cas Mudde’s famous definition, of a light ideology that allows them to decline in all possible forms of protest”.
Since the 2018 elections, the M5S has been in three different governments, first in coalition with the extreme right of the League, then with the Democratic Party and always with Conte as prime minister, and now in the coalition that supports Draghi, where they are all the big parties except the far-right Brothers of Italy formation.
The illusion of direct democracy
“The beginning of the legislature in 2018 did not imply a change or a reflection on the need to take root in the territories, to have a moment of organization. There was not a moment of reflection on the need, as a government force, to have another approach. It was thought that with social networks and always looking at the polls, consensus could be managed. However, time has determined the need to make decisions, and if immigrants had to go after Salvini, on environmental issues it was no longer possible to say no to everything. Being in the palaces of power requires confronting the ministerial bureaucracy and the constituted power and they have ended up caged, and little by little they have been losing consensus”, comments the same source familiar with the internal mechanisms of the party, who also acknowledges that another of The limits, in the absence of a strong territorial organization, have been the illusion of “Network democracy”, with periodic online voting on the party line at crucial moments: “The paradigm has revealed its insufficiency, if not incoherence, because it was not based on clear and shared rules and it was not clear from the beginning of the legislature based on what criteria it was decided that parliamentarians would pronounce themselves and when it was necessary to go to online voting. So it became clear that direct democracy was an excuse when you didn’t want to take responsibility for difficult decisions.”
The changes that the party has gone through, from the square to the government, find a synthesis precisely in the departure of Di Maio, who has gone from meeting in 2019 with the leaders of the yellow vests in France to presenting himself as a man of the institutions , asking for responsibility and announcing in his farewell speech to the M5S the beginning of a path “without room for hate, sovereignty and populism”.
Some analysts have been quick to say that the era of populism is over. But for Ignazi, the political scientist, it is not so clear: “It seems a bit daring to announce the death of something that has obtained the support of almost half of Italians. And the discontent has already taken other forms, partly in the direction of the extreme right of Brothers of Italy and partly towards abstention. In the next elections, if there are no changes, there will be a sharp drop in participation. What Ignazi sees more clearly, on the other hand, is the risk that the M5S runs of becoming irrelevant four years after having been the first political force in the country.