After 14 months of Mario Monti’s technocratic government, Italy’s hopes for political stability rested on the national elections last February. But such hopes were promptly dashed, when a quarter of the electorate rejected the political powers that be - the centre-right People of Freedom (PdL) and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) - and gave their vote to a comedian and his protest party.
Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement (M5S) rose to prominence through its vehement opposition to the political establishment, perceived by many Italians as being ineffective and corrupt.
Having done so, the M5S post-election refused coalition talks and its 162 politicians formed a vocal opposition bloc in parliament. Their high-profile stunts have since ranged from a kissing protest within the lower house chamber to unfurling banners from its rooftop.
While his representatives push for change from within the gates of power, Grillo’s past year has been marked by his frequent blog posts attacking Italian leaders. He has called for the impeachment of President Giorgio Napolitano and just last week likened Italy’s new prime minister, Matteo Renzi, to fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
Such tactics aim to set Grillo and his party apart from the tainted old guard of Italian politics, according to Fabio Bordignon and Luigi Ceccarini, professors at the University of Urbino who have studied the political movement.
Grillo’s request for the president’s impeachment earlier this year was “a strategy explicitly aimed at getting visibility,” Bordignon and Ceccarini told The Local via email.
“The accusations made against the president are without foundation, from the constitutional point of view, [but] serve to bring the spotlight back to the movement and its behaviour,” the academics wrote.
While Grillo has certainly shaken up the political scene, Italians are beginning to question whether the M5S has had any tangible impact on government policy over the past year.
As put by Paolo Natale, a professor at the University of Milan and co-author of a book on the M5S, “a common programme of government did not exist” when the party arrived in Rome. Like the MPs themselves, the electorate was “united by the will to change the system, but had nothing else in common”, he said, making consensus on a political agenda a great challenge.
Rather than getting things done, “the true achievement consists of it showing Italians that another political logic is possible, also from within institutions,” said Natale. He cites the M5S’s rejection of public funding as one key way the party has been reshaping politics.
Despite a questionable record in forming policy and its MPs not being part of the Italian cabinet, the M5S still has broad support among the electorate.
A poll this week found the party is still the favourite for 22.1 percent of voters, compared to Renzi’s PD party with 31.9 percent and ahead of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia - formerly the PdL - with 20.8 percent.
But rather than such continued support being the result of M5S’ success in Rome, it can be seen as pointing to a broader problem in Italian politics.
According to Duncan McDonnell, a research fellow at Florence’s European University Institute who has studied the party, “this support level, of course, does not just reflect the M5S’ own merits.”
It is also evidence of “the ongoing disenchantment with politics in Italy - something that is unlikely to dissipate in the near future,” he said.
The Renzi effect
But while pessimism over politics is rife in Italy, there have been some key changes in recent months which could challenge Grillo and his party.
The leader of the PD, Pier Luigi Bersani, resigned following his party’s poor election performance last February, leaving fellow centre-left politician Enrico Letta to lead a fragile coalition government.
Letta was ousted last month by Renzi, a young and widely-supported politicians who - like Grillo - gained popularity with a promise to revamp Italian politics.
Matteo Renzi was sworn in as prime minister last month. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
Whereas the M5S has made waves by shouting from the sidelines, the new prime minister is better-positioned than Grillo to drive the change Italians demand.
“The possible attraction exercised from Renzi on the part of the M5S electorate represents one of the most relevant challenges, on the part of Grillo, in the months to come,” Bordignon and Ceccarini said.
Renzi is “a young leader who understands better than others the question of a new politics,” they said, “addressing each of the issues picked up by the M5S in the past”.
Grillo’s great achievement has been to jolt the PD into action - casting aside former leaders in favour of a new face - but this may make his own political movement redundant.
For Natale, “if Renzi succeeds in really changing Italian politics, there will be no more reason to vote for the M5S.”
The new prime minister’s reform agenda, touching upon everything from the electoral law to jobs, faces strong opposition in a divided parliament. But if he can gain consensus, mainstream Italian politics will regain legitimacy and the M5S could soon be cast aside by voters.
“The hope of Grillo is that the Renzi government fails to achieve its objective,” as Natale said.