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POLITICS

Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy’s Five Star Movement

After winning the largest share of the vote in Italy’s 2018 elections on an anti-establishment platform, the populist Five Star Movement has lost support in recent years, and now faces an uncertain future.

Current Five Star Movement leader Giuseppe Conte speaks at an October 21, 2018 convention in Rome.
Current Five Star Movement leader Giuseppe Conte. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP.

As Italy’s general election nears, The Local is publishing a series of articles introducing the key parties and political figures you need to know about.

Here’s a quick guide to Italy’s populist Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, or M5S), its history, policies, support, and key figures.

Origins

The M5S was founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009 and quickly grew. It was born out of apparent frustration with the political establishment in a country with a stagnant economy and widespread corruption at the highest echelons.

The key idea was to use the internet as the engine for a new kind of democracy: social media would be used to spread the word, and online voting would decide the party’s platform. Grillo’s blog and events organized through networking site Meetup brought members and supporters together.

By the time of Italy’s 2013 election, the M5S had grown enough to scoop more overall votes than any other party – but because of its refusal at the time to join a coalition, something that’s more or less essential to play a part in an Italian government, this result didn’t put the party in charge of the country.

When Italy’s 2018 election resulted in a hung parliament, M5S decided it was tired of watching from the sidelines, and formed a post-election coalition with the hard-right League. The alliance proved an uneasy one, with the League pulling out in 2019.

M5S went on to form two more coalition governments, both of which collapsed, leaving Italy with three governments in as many years. The third and final collapse, which triggered Italy’s September 2022 snap elections, was caused by M5S withdrawing its support.

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Grillo at a 2013 rally in Bergamo.
Grillo at a 2013 rally in Bergamo. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Ideology

The M5S hate categories. They claim to be neither left nor right, and their defining feature is an ‘anti-establishment’ attitude.

Officially, M5S stands for transparency and is anti-corruption, calling for politicians’ salaries to be reduced and using an online platform to vote on candidates and legislation, as part of its commitment to ‘direct democracy’. However, it has faced criticism in the past for tight control by party leadership: locally elected representatives must abide by a ‘code of conduct’ and get permission from the leaders on numerous issues.

The party was previously described as ‘anti-euro’ due to its pledge to hold a referendum on Italy’s membership of the currency, but under former leader Luigi Di Maio and current head Giuseppe Conte, its stance towards the euro and EU has significantly softened. After the EU pledged to allocate €750 billion in recovery funds to Italy in the wake of the Covid pandemic, Conte said the bloc had reacted “with courage and vision”.

On Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the party has reiterated its support for Europe but otherwise kept quiet, with Conte recently saying the government should prioritise Italy’s green transition over military spending. This prevarication on the part of its leadership is thought to be a large part of the reason why Di Maio, then foreign minister, left the party in 2022.

Former M5S head Di Maio (L) and current party leader Conte at an October 21, 2018 in Rome.
Former M5S head Di Maio (L) and current party leader Conte at an October 21, 2018 in Rome. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP.

On other issues, the party’s policies are a mixture of the traditional left and right, and often hard to pin down. It withdrew support for gay civil unions in parliament in 2016, though its 2022 manifesto says the party is in favour of equal marriage rights. Over the years, M5S has maintained a relatively tough stance on immigration issues; on the environment and social inequality, though, it’s much closer to the traditional left.

Initially defined by its loose organisational structure, in 2021 M5S members approved a new statute that lays out a clear group hierarchy, formalising its transition from scrappy outsider to fully-fledged political party.

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Support

The Movement scooped 33 percent of the vote in the 2018 general elections, making it the country’s largest party at the time.

After more than four years in government, however, M5S has seen its support plummet. As of August 2022, a month before Italy’s general election, the group was polling at around 11 percent.

M5S’s 2019 choice to form a coalition with PD, its one-time enemy, was unpopular with core members. The party’s decision to pull out of a ‘unity’ coalition government in July 2022, apparently in a bid to claw back some support by asserting its independence, also seems to have backfired.

According to a survey conducted at the time, only one in three Italians supported the move, which catapulted the country into snap elections at a time when Italy was already grappling with a cost of living crisis and the effects of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

To add to its woes, M5S has experienced a large number of defections in the recent years – not least that of former leader Di Maio, who in June 2022 left to form his own party more closely aligned with the political establishment.

In this graph of Italian political opinion polls from March 2018 to September 2022, the Five Star Movement is marked in yellow. Graph: Impru20/Wikimedia Commons

Big names

Giuseppe Conte became head of M5S in 2021 after being voted in by members via an online poll. A law professor with no political background and some questionable CV bona fides, he served as prime minister of Italy in two separate coalition governments between 2018 and 2021 as a M5S-linked independent. His approval rating among Italians rose to more than 60 percent during the Covid pandemic, but dropped to 39 percent in July 2022 after he made the unpopular decision to pull out of the government and trigger an early election.

Beppe Grillo is the co-founder of the movement, together with Gianroberto Casaleggio who died in 2017. The former comedian was known for his vulgarity (early party rallies were known as ‘Vaffa days’ or ‘Fuck you days’) and rants, but he was responsible for the Movement’s break out success. Recently, he’s taken steps to publicly distance himself from the M5S, rarely appearing at events, and in 2018 disassociating his blog from the party it spawned. He has at times butted heads with Conte, accusing the latter of lacking political vision and trying to preside over a one-man party.

READ ALSO: A new direction for the Five Star Movement? Grillo distances himself from the party he founded

Beppe Grillo (L) with the party's former leader Luigi Di Maio.
Beppe Grillo (L) with the party’s former leader Luigi Di Maio. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

POLITICS

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Just weeks after going on trial in a case brought by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano was back in court on Wednesday facing allegations of defamation lodged by Meloni's deputy, Matteo Salvini.

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, whose far-right League party is a key member of Meloni’s coalition, is suing the journalist for calling him the “minister of the criminal underworld” in a social media post in 2018.

In November, Saviano went on trial in a case brought by Meloni for calling her a “bastard” in 2020 over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

READ ALSO: Press freedom fears as Italian PM Meloni takes Saviano to trial

Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but won September elections on a promise to curb mass migration.

Saviano, known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, regularly clashes with Italy’s far-right and says the trials are an attempt to intimidate him.

He faces up to three years in prison if convicted in either trial.

“I think it is the only case in Western democracies where the executive asks the judiciary to lay down the boundaries within which it is possible to criticise it,” Saviano said in a declaration in court on Wednesday.

He said he was “blatantly the victim of intimidation by lawsuit”, on trial “for making my opinion, my thoughts, public”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about press freedom in Italy

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the suits to be scrapped. Meloni refused in November, despite criticism that her position of power makes it an unfair trial.

Armed guard

Saviano has lived under police protection since revealing the secrets of the Naples mafia in 2006.

But when Salvini was appointed interior minister in a previous government in June 2018, he suggested he might scrap Saviano’s armed guard.

The writer reacted on Facebook, saying Salvini “can be defined ‘the minister of the criminal underworld’,” an expression he said was coined by anti-fascist politician Gaetano Salvemini to describe a political system which exploited voters in Italy’s poorer South.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia author Saviano won’t be ‘intimidated’ by Salvini

He accused Salvini of having profited from votes in Calabria to get elected senator, while failing to denounce the region’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia and focusing instead on seasonal migrants.

Salvini’s team are expected to reject any claim he is soft on the mafia.

Saviano’s lawyer said he will call as a witness the current interior minister Matteo Piantedosi, who at the time was in charge of evaluating the journalist’s police protection.

The next hearing was set for June 1st.

Watchdogs have warned of the widespread use in Italy of SLAPPS, lawsuits aimed at silencing journalists or whistleblowers.

Defamation through the media can be punished in Italy with prison sentences from six months to three years, but the country’s highest court has urged lawmakers to rewrite the law, saying jail time for such cases was unconstitutional.

Saviano is also being sued by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano in a civil defamation case brought in 2020, before Sangiuliano joined the cabinet.

A ruling in that case could come in the autumn. If he loses that case Saviano may have to pay up to 50,000 euros in compensation, his lawyer told AFP.

Italy ranked 58th in the 2022 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one of the lowest positions in western Europe.

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