Relying on the minimalist resources of the internet, a camper van and hordes of volunteers, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement has come from nowhere three years ago to becoming possibly the single biggest force in Italian politics.
Italy’s general election has produced results that none of the opinion polls had predicted. But it was the movement led by comedian-blogger Beppe Grillo that could lay claim to real victory, giving voice to the anger felt by millions of Italians at a political and corporate elite mired in corruption scandals and cosseted from the impact of austerity imposed on the rest of the country.
With results in from more than 90 per cent of polling stations in the race for parliament’s lower house on Monday night, the Five Star Movement was leading with 25.5 per cent of the electorate and several thousand votes ahead of the centre-left Democratic party. Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Liberty trailed in third place, well over a million votes behind.
Under a complex voting system that guarantees a majority of seats to the winning coalition, the Democrats were only on course to win in the lower house thanks to the support of its smaller allies, while the Five Star Movement had campaigned alone.
Hammering home Italians’ rejection of Mario Monti’s mix of austerity and reforms, Mr Grillo’s team of political novices won three times as many votes as the outgoing prime minister’s grouping. The Five Star leader himself spent the campaign filling piazzas across the country as he delivered his comic rants against the system.
“This election is the proof that the [mainstream] parties are finished,” Mr Grillo said on the movement’s web television channel late on Monday. “They won’t survive for long,” he said of Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the Democrats, and Mr Berlusconi. His address indicated that the Five Star Movement would not use its numbers in parliament to prop up either party.
Mr Bersani has said he would reach out to the Five Star Movement for support but a formal coalition is out of the question for Mr Grillo.
Among the movement’s main demands is a rewriting of the electoral law based on proportional representation, a halving of the number of parliamentarians and an end to public funding of political parties.
Rejecting criticism that it is merely a voice of protest, the movement’s supporters have a series of proposals for increasing pensions and unemployment benefits, the nationalisation of failed banks, more support for small enterprises and a focus on renewable energy and sustainable waste disposal.
Not yet on the official agenda but often raised by Mr Grillo is a proposal to hold a referendum on pulling Italy out of the eurozone, although that would require a change in the constitution.
Mr Grillo – who has promised to open parliament “like a tin of tuna” – will not be a delegate himself as a result of his conviction for manslaughter in the deaths of three passengers in a car he was driving.
How coherent a unit his parliamentarians will prove to be remains an open question, notes Tommaso Nannicini, a professor of political economy at Bocconi university who analysed the profiles of its candidates. They have never met as a single group or held a party congress, having been chosen through primaries conducted online.
Some have never even met Mr Grillo, who is regarded as the movement’s “megaphone” rather than its leader despite his efforts to impose discipline and rules, including a pre-election ban on appearing on television talkshows.
More than 40 per cent of the movement’s deputies are women – the highest proportion among all the parties. At an average age of 32 they are also the youngest, while nearly 80 per cent have university degrees. More than a third are white-collar workers, nearly a quarter are self-employed and 15 per cent are jobless.
Jamie Bartlett, co-author of a detailed survey of the movement’s supporters for the UK think-tank Demos, says the social media politics pioneered by Mr Grillo can no longer be dismissed by his detractors as gimmickry.
“On social media, Grillo is the most followed politician in Europe: he has four times as many Twitter followers as [UK prime minister] David Cameron and he uses that enormous following to mobilise, recruit and get the vote out,” Mr Bartlett said.
The success of the movement also carries a warning for mainstream parties across Europe.
“Many of the concerns of Grillo’s supporters are shared by people across Europe and are reflected in declining trust in political institutions, falling political party membership and ever-lower voter turnout. This combination of anti-establishment rhetoric and new forms of communication could be a model replicated across the continent – including the UK,” Mr Bartlett added.
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