Has the time come for Italy’s Five Star Movement to shine?

Founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, the radical Five Star Movement burst onto the political scene in 2009, in the middle of Italy’s financial crisis.

Has the time come for Italy’s Five Star Movement to shine?
(L) Chiara Appendino, mayor of Turin and (R) Virginia Raggi, mayor of Rome. Photos: Marco Bertorello/Filippo Monteforte/AFP

With Silvio Berlusconi still at the helm, for the next four years the party worked tirelessly, mostly using the internet, to reflect the palpable change in mood among Italians – that they were fed up with the ruling class.

In February 2013, the party became the second biggest political force in Italy behind the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) after scooping 25 percent of the vote in the general election.

During the intervening years, most of that success was down to the protest nature of the group, with the burly Grillo – as much of a showman as Berlusconi – making a stand against everything from the euro and corruption to Italy’s sclerotic political and economic system.

Beppe Grillo, leader of Italy's Five Star Movement. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

The party has since seized control of small cities, including Parma, Livorno and Ragusa, in Sicily, and on Sunday clinched two of its biggest prizes yet: the capital of Rome, and the former capital, Turin.

So how did the so-called ‘Grillini’ get this far?

Possibly due to the party's leader taking a back seat. In January, the 67-year-old announced his return to the comedy circuit, not because he was distancing himself from the movement, he said, but simply “taking a step to the side”.

The move was preceded by a colourful few years, during which the party made headlines more for Grillo’s tirades than for anything else.

Most of those, including telling a prostitute to ply her trade online because it’s safer and making Nazi jibes at EU politicians, came in 2014 – the year he allied with Nigel Farage, the leader of Ukip, the British right-wing populist party.

Just a few weeks ago, Farage, who is campaigning for Britain to leave the EU ahead of a referendum on Thursday, told Corriere della Sera that the pair would “destroy the old EU” . “On June 19th, the Five Star Movement elects the mayor of the capital,” he said. “On June 23rd, Britain leaves the EU and changes Europe.”

Grillo also once said that he and Farage were “rebels with a cause”.

But 2014 was also the year Grillo, dubbed by the Italian media as ‘the clown’, was advised by the party’s co-founder and spin-doctor, the late Gianroberto Casaleggio, to tone down his aggression and “smile more”. The advice came during a post-mortem of the party’s performance in the European Elections, which left it trailing behind the PD.

Grillo had kept a relatively low profile since then, with Luigi Di Maio, widely tipped to succeed him, working to transform the party, clean up its image and broaden its appeal. Grillo has also removed his name from the party’s logo.

But he was back to his old tricks again in early May, sparking widespread condemnation after making a terrorist ‘joke’ about London’s new Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, during a show in Padua.

At the time, some commentators wondered if the gaffe risked damaging the party’s chances in the impending mayoral elections. Not so.

So how come the turnaround?

Almost out of nowhere came Virginia Raggi, who was elected Rome’s first-ever female mayor on Sunday.

An intellectual property lawyer and mother-of-one, Raggi has no experience of running anything.

But her pledge to crackdown on fare dodgers, improve public transport and clean-up the capital’s streets struck a chord with the basic demands of an electorate that has long been weary of its political class.

With Rome’s administration wracked by an ongoing trial over the infiltration of organized crime, and former mayor Ignazio Mario being ousted over an expenses scandal, Raggi also vowed to rid city hall of corruption.

Meanwhile in Turin, one of Italy’s largest urban centres, the Five Star Movement’s Chiara Appendino, 31, claimed just over 54 percent of the vote to oust the PD’s long-serving Piero Fassino.

She became the city’s third female mayor – after Maria Magnani Noya, elected in 1987, and Giovanna Cattaneo Incisa, who became mayor in 1992 but died within a year, aged 69. Noya died just a few days before, aged 80.

In their victory speeches, both Raggi and Appendino touched on their wins as being about “change” rather than “protest”.

“For the first time Rome has a female mayor in an age where equality of opportunity remains a mirage,” Raggi said. “I will be a mayor for all Romans. I will restore legality and transparency to the city's institutions after 20 years of poor governance. With us a new era is opening.”

Appendino, a multilingual businesswoman who helps run her family's laser equipment company, said: “We have made history. This was not a protest vote, it was about pride and change.”

Has the party forged alliances with any others in order to win votes?

Since inception, one of the party’s golden rules has been not to form any alliances with its opponents. Locally-elected representatives are also bound by a code of conduct that means they have to ask permission from the top for every important position.

So why else is the party so appealing right now?

That Italians MPs are among the highest paid in the world is well-known, and many voters have voiced their outrage by backing the Five Star Movement, whose representatives are forced to contribute part of their salaries towards reducing Italy’s public debt and funding small businesses.

Raggi has vowed to tackle corruption in Rome. But are there any lurking threats to the party’s image?

The party has been beating the drum about corruption since the beginning, but alas, its anti-graft banner has, in fact, been blackened by allegations it struck deals with local mobsters in Naples. Meanwhile, investigations have been launched into the Five Star’s mayor of Parma for abuse of office, and his counterpart in the Tuscan city of Livorno is being probed for fraud.

Only time will tell if the Five Star Movement can truly break from Italian political tradition.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


On eve of election, Italy braces for potential far-right win

Italians on Saturday braced for seismic change, on the eve of an election forecast to hand Italy the most right-wing government since World War II.

On eve of election, Italy braces for potential far-right win

Out with internationally respected Mario Draghi and in — polls say — with Eurosceptic Giorgia Meloni, head of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, who is widely tipped to become the country’s first woman to head a government.

“The country is eager for a change, a new face,” Wolfango Piccoli of the London-based political risk consultancy Teneo told AFP.

Italy is battling a series of crises, from rampant inflation and extreme weather events linked to climate change, to an energy crisis aggravated by the war in Ukraine.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding the Brothers of Italy

The campaign, sparked by Draghi’s downfall in July, wrapped up on Friday, giving Italians a day of reprieve as electioneering is banned until the vote.

People who spoke to AFP in Rome on Saturday said they were unsure the day before the election as the latest polls show that the Brothers of Italy party is likely to win and form a government.

“I am worried by the fact that the polls have the right-wing as the winner, especially Giorgia Meloni,” said Maria Tasca, a 27-year-old student originally from Sicily.

‘No magic solution’

“From what she has said on women’s rights, on young people’s rights, on rights in general, I see things going backwards by at least 50 years,” Tasca added.

“The problems are worldwide, there’s no magic solution. But sometimes you have to change,” said a 75-year-old shop owner, who gave his name only as Dante.

Meloni, 45, has worked hard over the past few weeks to reassure skittish investors and an anxious Brussels that her party’s historic ties to supporters of dictator Benito Mussolini are a thing of the past.

She has softened her tone and posted a video of herself on TikTok making traditional pastries from the Puglia region.

But she channelled warrior Aragorn from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings on Thursday at the closing rally for the right-wing coalition, which unites her Brothers of Italy with Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League party and billionaire Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy’s League

The self-described “Christian mother” segued smoothly from the fantasy king to blaming the left for the country’s “drug dealers, thieves, rapists and mafia”, adding: “This Italy ends on Sunday”.

Berlusconi, 85, was at her side.

The media mogul — who is on trial accused of bribing starlets not to testify about his allegedly erotic parties — has campaigned mainly online, wooing grandmothers and housewives with promises of stay-at-home salaries.

TikTok jokes

He has also chased the youth vote with some TikTok jokes — including one about not trying to steal their girlfriends.

The race has seen the parties try to win over voters with ideas such as sending goods from northern to southern Italy via tube and fighting climate change with cannabis.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy’s Five Star Movement

Former interior minister Salvini, 49, campaigned under the slogan “Credo” (I believe), earning him a rebuke from the Catholic Church.

Fearful of losing a significant chunk of his supporters to Meloni, Salvini has tried to stand out by calling for an end to sanctions against Russia and railing against Brussels.

But the end of his campaign was overshadowed by a video clip of him describing a blind League candidate on Thursday as “an eye for Italians”.

The centre-left’s Enrico Letta, head of the Democratic Party (PD), rocked up to his final rally in an electric van — reminding voters of his earlier efforts to promote ecologically friendly transport, when his electric campaign
bus ran out of battery.

His main rival for votes on the left, Giuseppe Conte, head of the populist Five Star Movement, seemed to have more staying power.

He was photographed so often standing head and shoulders above the crowd amid a throng of supporters that the media dubbed him the “travelling Madonna”.