Can Italy’s Outsiders Govern Like Insiders? A Tale of Two Five Star Mayors

Can Italy’s Outsiders Govern Like Insiders? A Tale of Two Five Star Mayors

As Italy waits on new elections to replace its interim government, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement is rising in the polls and has a shot at catapulting into the highest levels of power. From what the movement has shown at the local level, Italy could be in for a bumpy ride.

Like many populist parties in Europe, the Five Star Movement has steadily attracted voters looking to shake up the political status quo. Yet critics characterize the group as a bunch of upstart complainers,  better at carping than actually governing.

Last summer the movement, co-founded by former comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009, finally made a big leap towards legitimacy when a pair of young female mayoral candidates swept elections in two of Italy’s biggest cities. Seven months later, Italians are starting to draw some early conclusions from their track records — and their assessments may hint at the movement’s chances with a wider audience when national elections are finally held later this year or in 2018.

Since taking office in June, Chiara Appendino, the 32-year-old Five Star mayor of Turin, quickly rose to become Italy’s most popular mayor and a poster child for a telegenic non-career politician. Meanwhile, 38-year-old Virginia Raggi, mayor of Rome, has been dragged through the mud, beset by scandals and infighting, and is in danger of losing her post.   

Partly that’s due to the differences between the two cities they govern. Turin is home to major car companies and a purring economy. It’s got a foundation of efficient services and has successfully pulled off big public events, like the 2006 winter Olympics. Rome, in contrast, is notoriously unwieldy, with billions of euros in debt, a huge and cantankerous civil service, and complicated municipal politics prone to corruption.

Still, the depth of the Roman mayor’s ineptitude has surprised many. “It’s a total disaster and really looks like she didn’t get one thing right or even try,” said Rosa Balfour, the director of the German Marshall Fund’s Europe program. “They were really not doing their homework.’

From her first months in office, the lawyer and political newcomer had a revolving door of appointees in key government posts, some who resigned citing lack of transparency, others who were forced out after coming under investigation by city prosecutors. Raggi’s lax administration also meant she’s had trouble keeping government functions like garbage collection up and running. Now she is under investigation by Rome’s municipal court for abuse of office and false testimony. The missteps may do major damage to the Five Star’s image as a party that eschews sleazy traditional politics and promises radical transparency. 

“There was a conviction that they could do things differently” in Rome, Balfour told Foreign Policy. “Because of a lack of experience, they didn’t realize the hurdles ahead.”

Meanwhile, Appendino has had a smoother start in Turin, even garnering some positive international buzz over her initiative to turn Turin into Italy’s first “vegetarian city.” While she was also new to politics, Appendino is not exactly an outsider. She comes from a well-known Turin business family and was able to tap her network of connections to help run the city.

But continuity in Turin has also led some residents to wonder whether the Five Star Movement really offers anything new.

“Things are the same, the trash is still collected, the city runs well, and you don’t see that anything has gotten worse,” said Alberto Sarzano, a Turin resident who didn’t vote for Appendino but says he’s relatively satisfied with her management so far. Still, he doesn’t see a huge departure from the previous center-left government, like improvements to mass transportation, and wouldn’t support the Five Star Movement in the future.

“They ran their campaign saying they’d be so different, but after almost a year we don’t see anything new,” he said. “In fact, they seem to be doing less than the rest.”

The big question is whether the Five Star Movement’s national image — and electoral chances — will be boosted more by Appendino’s safe handling of Turin, or hindered by the slow-motion trainwreck in Rome.

Appendino’s youth and gender do set her apart. “You should not underestimate that she represents a novelty in a very traditional city,” said Andrea Montanino, director of the Global Business and Economics Program at the Atlantic Council. Meanwhile, a recent survey found Raggi wouldn’t make it to a runoff if elections for mayor of Rome were held today.

Balfour said that while there is a “core electorate that will vote Five Star Movement regardless of performance,” people on the fence — especially left-leaning voters attracted by the anti-corruption message — will likely be disappointed by the missteps displayed so far.

Some former Five Star Movement politicians warn that the party simply isn’t built to govern.

Federico Pizzarotti, the popular mayor of Parma and a former member of the movement, said there are plenty of other examples of mismanagement in smaller cities like Chioggia and Civita Vecchia run by Five Star mayors.

“It’s not enough to just call yourself honest and capable and better than the rest and just say it,” he told FP. “You must demonstrate it with actions.”

Pizzarotti, who left the party after clashing with Five Star leader Beppe Grillo, said the movement isn’t developing political talent and seems to be veering away from their grassroots beginnings, instead empowering “yes-men” more interested in visibility than accountability.

“While their poll numbers are rising, the quality of the people who are running for office is dropping even more,” he said. “If the Five Star Movement wins on an national level, in my opinion, they won’t have enough suitable politicians prepared to govern.”

Montanino agreed. “There are no clear ways to grow into the movement and become a leader,” he said. “You can be lucky and have a good mayor, or you can be very unlucky and have a bad mayor.” 

But simply being unprepared to govern doesn’t mean the voters won’t hand you the keys to kingdom.

“Anti-establishment sentiment is a threat everywhere in Europe, and it’s very difficult to beat,” he said.

Photo credit: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images