The Big Test: Assessing the Five Star Movement’s Roman Chance

When TV comedian Beppe Grillo and web activist Gianroberto Casaleggio started a political movement in 2009, few believed it would become a major force in Italian politics. Yet eight years later, the MoVimento 5 Stelle (M5s) has emerged as one of the country’s most important parties. With this expansion in power and influence, Grillo’s party can no longer be judged solely by its electoral performance or its ideology on paper. Now that it holds executive power in two of Italy’s largest cities, Rome and Turin, the leaders of the movement have to prove that they can practice what they preach.

Before assessing such performance, however, there needs to be an understanding of the movement’s ideological framework. There were two main ideas behind the foundation of the party. The first was rather unexceptional and fairly widespread: simply, that Italy is being badly managed by its politicians. The second idea was, in contrast, rather unique and quite sophisticated: that government today should take advantage of technology and the Internet. M5s believes in e-democracy, the idea that citizens should be consulted on major issues through costless and easy online referendums. Moreover, the movement holds that by digitizing government, Italy can start tackling its huge costs of operation and fight issues like tax evasion. Over the years, M5s also developed other ideologies that fit into this broader framework. A commitment to environmentalism has been an integral element in the party’s manifesto since the beginning, for instance. Staunch Euroskepticism has also often been linked to the M5s leadership. Overall, this set of governing tenets make it hard to place M5s on the political spectrum. Indeed, the movement rejects the right-left paradigm completely and attracts followers from all sides.

At the 2012 administrative elections the party was finally able to test its new platform on a large scale. M5s performed well, finishing third in many of the mayoral contests and winning in Parma, Italy’s 18th most populous city. In 2013, the party came in third at the general election with 25.56 percent of the votes, less than four percentage points away from the winning left-wing coalition (29.55 percent) and the runner up right-wing coalition (29.18 percent). The elections were irrefutable evidence that M5s was playing in the upper leagues. However, their emergence as a major political force resulted in a complex parliamentary situation that could only be resolved by the right and left wing groups forming a grand coalition; this allowed them to have a majority in parliament and thus be able to form a government, albeit one built on shaky grounds. From that moment on, M5s represented a major opposition force in the Italian parliament.

Now that it holds executive power in two of Italy’s largest cities, Rome and Turin, the leaders of the movement have to prove that they can practice what they preach.

The final seal of approval came in the summer of 2016, when M5s candidates won in several mayoral elections across the country. Most importantly, the party conquered two major cities: Rome and Turin. Rome is Italy’s capital and most populous city and had a troubled history of poor management. Gianni Alemanno, who was mayor from 2008 to 2013, was allegedly involved in the “Mafia Capitale” scandal, in which it was discovered that criminal organizations were taking possessions of public funds to finance their illicit businesses. His successor, Ignazio Marino, was forced to resign two years after his election after a personal finances scandal lost him the support of his party (as well as that of large segments of the Roman population). Virginia Raggi, a 38-year-old lawyer and City Councillor for M5s, ran as the anti-corruption, anti-establishment candidate and easily won with almost 70 percent at the runoff, the largest margin in the city’s history, against candidates of all other major parties.

Yet Raggi’s triumph in Rome represented a drastic change for the party she represented. Now that it has executive power in one of the country’s most important cities, M5s can no longer solely reap votes for criticizing those in power; it needs to prove it has what it takes to take on the mantle of political power and use it effectively and honestly. Rome is their chance to show Italians what they are capable of doing, rather than what they are capable of saying.

Raggi’s first year as mayor, which is coming to an end, has not been the smoothest. The new mayor took several weeks to form the “giunta” – a sort of city government in which ministers, known as “assessori,” are appointed to the head of various departments – more than any of her predecessors. But what seemed to be a handpicked team soon started crumbling.

Paola Muraro, who oversaw the department for the environment, resigned after being indicted for several crimes she allegedly committed whilst employed by the city’s waste collection agency a few years earlier. A few months later, one of Raggi’s closest counselors, Raffaele Marra, who had also been Head of Personnel at City Hall, was arrested and indicted for abuse of power and corruption. Amongst other episodes, Marra is accused of promoting his brother illicitly. The investigation has engulfed Raggi, who was indicted for abuse of power.

And these are only the highlights: in the last year Raggi had four different Chiefs of Staff and three different people heading the budget department and lost the head of the urban planning department. To make a long story short, Raggi’s team did not deviate from the long tradition of Rome’s governmental shenanigans. Corruption and dishonesty have lived on despite the electoral promises. What perhaps most upset M5s voters, however, is that the party decided to change its official code of conduct as a result of the scandals. Originally, M5s members elected to office were required to resign when indicted; now it is no longer the case.

Several other issues have been on Raggi’s plate in the last year. One of the most important battles has been over the city’s candidacy to host the 2024 Olympics. During her campaign Raggi had declared that while she was personally against hosting the games – providing a very clear and sound rationale for this opinion – she promised to let the citizens of Rome decide via a referendum. When the time came, however, the mayor simply vetoed the candidacy herself. In fact, Raggi has not held a single referendum since she took office, although many were promised during the election and in M5s’ manifesto.

The debate on Raggi’s stance on the Olympics fits nicely in the wider national debate about M5s’ commitment to democracy. Recently, primary elections for the movement’s mayoral candidate in Genoa were held online, as has been the party’s standard practice since its inception. Marika Cassimatis clearly won, yet Beppe Grillo decided to annul the results and nominate the runner up, Luca Pirondini, who was closer to the party’s elite. The rationale behind such a move is that Cassimatis had liked a Facebook post published by Federico Pizzarotti, the Mayor of Parma who had been expelled from the movement. This episode speaks to several concerns regarding Grillo’s leadership style, which many consider undemocratic and, indeed, strictly authoritarian.

Both the Roman case study and the national issues M5s is currently facing are troubling. There is a clear connection between events such as the Cassimatis case or Marra’s arrest and drops in the party’s poll performance. Their opposition now claims that M5s’ ideology is at odds with the practical realities of government. Perhaps such assessment is harsher than what the movement deserves, but for a party that stands for honesty and political renewal, M5s is seriously underperforming. If M5s is judged by its performance and not its abstract ideology, it is very similar to its sworn enemies. More specifically, the movement and its leaders are coming to terms with the fact that it is very easy to criticize the ills committed by those in power but quite difficult to change the situation, a critique that populist movements all over the world are starting to face. The scandals have hurt the party, but it remains popular. Yet with elections looming close, one cannot keep from wondering whether M5s can continue reaping protest votes. If Rome is at all indicative of M5s’ capabilities, then people will hopefully dispel the illusion.