Has Italy’s Five Star Movement Given Up on Populism?

The anti-establishment bad boys of years past are changing their stripes—maybe.

Sen. Vito Crimi speaks at Quirinal Palace.
Interim political head of the Five Star Movement, Sen. Vito Crimi, addresses the media at the Quirinal Palace in Rome on Jan. 29. Alessandra Tarantino/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

For years, Italy’s Five Star Movement was one of the most successful anti-establishment parties in Europe. Founded in 2009 by comedian-turned-political guru Beppe Grillo and late web strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio, it took Italy by storm: After winning power in several major cities, including Rome, it became the largest group in Parliament after the 2018 national elections. With a focus on fighting corruption, protecting the environment, and promoting direct democracy, it seemed on track to sweep away the old political system.

Now, the Five Star Movement is abandoning its populist patina to carve out for itself a place in the Italian political mainstream—if it can. 

The movement has now spent almost three years in various power-sharing coalitions, both with right-wing and left-wing parties. It is currently part of a national unity government led by Mario Draghi, a former European Central Bank president that Grillo used to call “Dracula.” The once-rebel force has even joined a government with its old foe Silvio Berlusconi, a media tycoon and former prime minister often depicted as the embodiment of the Italian political elite’s corruption. At the same time, the movement is hinting at a structural alliance with mainstream social democrats both in Rome and in Brussels.

The Five Star Movement “is being transformed from an anti-establishment party to one that is willing to work inside the establishment,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome. “They have realized that if they want to govern in the post-Draghi era, they’ll have to form alliances. This is a big change: The original Five Star wanted to go it alone.” 

The Five Star Movement has often been on a collision course with Brussels.

Its metamorphosis—alongside that of the far-right League Party, which jettisoned its long-standing Euroscepticism to back Draghi—suggests that the populist wave is losing steam in Italy. That would be a tectonic shift for a country where parties like the Five Star Movement and the League have long taken advantage of voter dissatisfaction with the political establishment. 

The tremors could be felt in Europe too. The League Party, for its part, spent years railing against Europe. But now that it’s in charge of the Ministry of Economic Development—which will have a key role in managing the huge cash influx earmarked by Brussels to repair the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic—it’s temporarily changed its tune. 

The Five Star Movement has often been on a collision course with Brussels; in the past, it called for a referendum on Italian membership in the eurozone and the renegotiation of Italy’s public debt. Now, it flaunts a Europe-friendly pedigree and is seeking to join mainstream left-wing parties in the European Parliament.

“We are firmly in the pro-European camp, as proven by a growing, solid affinity with the Socialists and Democrats in our voting records,” said Dino Giarrusso, a Five Star Movement member of the European Parliament. 

But the fizzling of Italy’s populist surge might be more apparent than real.

COVID-19, by making bombastic anti-system rhetoric less appealing to the electorate and encouraging maverick parties to take a more responsible path, may have checked populists’ momentum for now, said Federico Santi of the Eurasia Group. That’s especially true in contrast with the last great convulsion, the financial crisis of 2007-08, when austerity—not largesse—was the watchword. 

But “sooner or later, the focus will shift back to fiscal consolidation,” Santi warned, with efforts to reduce deficits and cut debt potentially paving the way for a populist rebound. 

“If we don’t restore economic growth and prosperity, reduce unemployment, and support the sectors badly hit by the pandemic, radical populism will be back again,” D’Alimonte said. “It has subsided, not disappeared.”

For now, the Five Star Movement remains at a crossroads, suspended between what it was and what it’s seeking to become. Grillo stormed into the national political arena with his “Vaffa” (“fuck you”) rallies that attracted huge crowds to vituperate traditional parties. The Five Star Movement was officially founded shortly after, channelling Italians’ widespread exasperation with the low ethical standards that plagued their political class; one of its flagship proposals was the introduction of stricter rules for aspiring parliamentary deputies, such as having no criminal records. 

Rejecting left-right labels, the Five Star Movement has appealed to voters from both camps over the years, advocating for a stronger response to climate change but also pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment in the electorate. That Janus-faced politics has been on display over the last three rocky years.

In some ways, the Five Star Movement has walked the same path as Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos.

Falling short of an absolute majority in 2018, the Five Star Movement formed two radically different coalitions in rapid succession, first with Salvini’s far-right League Party and then with the center-left Democratic Party. In the process, the Five Star Movement has lost much of its shine. After topping 32 percent in 2018, its support cratered after it entered government and stagnated to around 15 percent for years. Many Five Star Movement voters appeared to disapprove of the coalition with Salvini, who, despite being the junior partner, dominated the headlines and the government’s agenda with his hard-line stance against immigration. 

After the far right pulled the plug in 2019, the formation of a new majority with the Social Democrats was seen by some as opportunistic—a brazen pivot to remain in power at all costs, in the best tradition of old-style Italian politics the Five Star Movement used to denounce.

In some ways, the Five Star Movement has walked the same path as Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos. Although both were more clearly leftist than Grillo’s movement, they both rode an anti-establishment message to power, and then saw their support wither once they entered government. Podemos, the junior member of a conflicted coalition with Spain’s Socialist Workers’ Party, has seen its numbers tank in the polls; this week, the leader of Podemos left the government to fight a regional electoral battle on his own.

But although Podemos still has its same share of ministers in Spain’s coalition government, the Five Star Movement doesn’t in the cobbled-together new Italian government. The new cabinet reflects the movement’s fall from grace: Only four senior ministers come from its ranks, down from nine, and it no longer controls economic development, labor, justice, or education. 

Despite the cries of opportunism, many Five Star Movement loyalists insist that staying in government is the best way to protect progressive gains of recent years. But the rank-and-file is grumbling: Dozens of deputies have been expelled after failing to fall into line and vote for Draghi. 

With tensions between hard-liners and pragmatists coming to a head, Grillo in late February weighed in and indicated the party’s future lies in closer ties with the Social Democrats and making the environment its top policy priority. “When it comes to ensuring a more sustainable and equitable future, we are obviously more in tune with the PD [Democratic Party] than with the other Italian parties,” said Daniela Rondinelli, another Five Star Movement member of the European Parliament.

Completing Five Star Movement’s transformation is its new de facto leader: former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. After steering Italy through the first year of the pandemic, he is one of the country’s most popular politicians.

“Conte’s arrival is useful from an electoral standpoint,” said Luca Salvai, the Five Star Movement mayor of Pinerolo, a town of 37,000 near Turin. “He boosts our support and has the right personal and institutional profile to serve as prime minister.”

It’s not even clear how genuine the 5-Star’s shift to a progressive, pro-European stance really is.

Still, becoming part of the political mainstream may be easier said than done for the Five Star Movement, whose identity is still fluid. Although its policy priorities and the choice of Conte suggests it is increasingly gravitating toward the left, many of its members remain wary of ideological labels. 

“They still think they can get votes across the board like they used to,” D’Alimonte said.

It’s not even clear how genuine the Five Star Movement’s shift to a progressive, pro-European stance really is. The flirtation with the center-left “is a pragmatic move in order to survive while the leaders figure out what the Five Star’s future will be,” said Teresa Coratella of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

It also remains to be seen if traditional parties will be willing to normalize relations with a movement that has lambasted them for so long. Much will depend on what electoral rules will be in place in Italy at the time of the next poll. Majority systems encourage alliances more than proportional ones; Italy has a mix of the two, but every party strategist is factoring in possible new rules the next time around. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is having an identity crisis of its own, with its leader stepping down this month while decrying backstabbing among internal factions, many of whom have conflicting views on a long-term partnership with the Five Star Movement.

Things are little smoother in Brussels, where traditional parties are wary of a movement that’s veered all over the political highway. 

“Over the last years, the Five Stars have shown that they can change their mind very easily; therefore, they are looked at with a certain skepticism,” Coratella said.

Michele Barbero is an Italian journalist based in Paris.

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