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Italy: Discord Within the Five Star Movement

4 MINS READJun 19, 2013 | 16:04 GMT
Italy: Discord Within the Five Star Movement
Beppe Grillo, leader of Italy's Five Star Movement, speaks at a campaign rally on May 24.
TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Earlier this year, the Five Star Movement emerged as a key protagonist in Italian politics. With a message that was deeply critical of the traditional political elites and included subtle Euroskeptical references, the movement became attractive to millions of Italians who were tired of the mainstream parties and were suffering the negative effects of the austerity measures implemented by previous governments.

Under the charismatic leadership of former comedian Beppe Grillo, the Five Star Movement received the most votes of any single party in the Chamber of Deputies during the general elections held in February. But a mere four months after this electoral success, the movement is mired in internal disputes that threaten to destroy it.

The Five Star Movement was created in 2009 but achieved its first notable success in the municipal elections of May 2012, during which it won almost 20 percent of the vote in the populous city of Parma, beating traditional parties such as the Union of the Center and the People of Freedom party. As the economic crisis deepened in Italy, the movement became more popular and received 14.9 percent of the vote in the Sicilian regional elections in November 2012. The movement's biggest breakthrough came during the February general elections, in which it won 24.7 percent of the vote — only slightly less than the center-left and center-right coalitions.

The elections were a turning point for the party. With a parliament that was fragmented into three major political groups, Grillo — who was not a candidate but remained the movement's political leader — faced the dilemma of whether to support the formation of a government or maintain his strong anti-establishment rhetoric. He chose the latter, and Italy descended into political chaos. It took two months for the center-left and the center-right to reach an agreement to form a government, and the movement decided not to enter the ruling coalition. This damaged Grillo's image, because despite their disenchantment with traditional politicians, Italians demanded stability, and Grillo was increasingly perceived as an obstructionist leader.

On top of its inability to cooperate with the traditional parties, the movement also faced serious institutional problems. The Five Star Movement allowed ordinary citizens with no previous political experience to become parliamentarians. Unlike traditional parties, the Five Star Movement held its primaries online, allowing citizens to present their candidacies to be voted on by users of Grillo's blog.

Initially, this raised hopes for many Italians, especially among those voters who rejected traditional politicians and wanted "ordinary people" to take over Parliament. But as soon as the new lawmakers began working, their lack of experience became evident, and the Five Star Movement failed to form a coherent force in Parliament. As a response, Grillo tried to retain personal control of the movement, micromanaging its decisions and constantly issuing guidelines on what the lawmakers could and could not do.

The movement's main weakness is its failure to create institutionalized mechanisms to deal with internal dissent. As divisions within the movement deepened, Grillo began threatening to expel lawmakers who did not follow the official party line. In December 2012, he threw out two leading party members because they allegedly broke the movement's rules. In April, he expelled a parliamentarian for defying orders not to speak on television shows. And in May, two lawmakers left the movement to create their own group in Parliament.

The municipal elections that were held in May and June — in which the party won in two of the 200 municipalities where it competed — increased the movement's internal crisis. Five Star Movement Sen. Adele Gambaro openly criticized Grillo, saying that his authoritarian leadership style was to blame for the party's poor electoral performance. Grillo's reaction was to propose Gambaro's expulsion from the party. On June 17, 79 of the movement's 160 parliamentarians voted for Gambaro's expulsion, while 49 voted against it and nine abstained. Paola Pinna, a party member who defended Gambaro, could also be expelled.

The rift created over Grillo's proposal to punish the dissident lawmaker highlights the Five Star Movement's deep fragmentation. The party is currently divided between those who advocate a hard line against dissent and those who propose greater internal democratization. On June 18, the hard-liners staged a protest next to the Italian Chamber of Deputies, denouncing a conspiracy of the center-left and the media against Grillo and accusing dissident members of betraying the movement.

Grillo's party still has a chance to remain a key player in Italian politics. The recent municipal elections had low participation rates (for example, voter turnout for Rome's mayoral election fell from 77.2 percent in 2008 to 59.8 percent in 2013), which shows that Italians remain disillusioned with their leaders. In this sense, Grillo still has some leeway to attract voters dissatisfied with traditional elites. Other parties will also try to take advantage of popular discontent. Recently, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi increased his anti-Germany rhetoric, hoping to attract voters affected by Italy's austerity measures.

The Five Star Movement's internal disputes highlight the difficulties faced by new anti-establishment parties that are emerging with the European crisis. In Germany, after having a relatively good performance in the regional elections of 2012, the Pirate Party is now fighting to survive and probably will not enter Parliament in the September general elections. The Five Star Movement was considerably more successful, but both parties are undergoing the difficult transition from a protest movement to a more formally institutionalized party. The Five Star Movement's survival depends on its ability to navigate this transition.

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