“…And yet, the amateurs are the ones conquering the world and I’m rejoicing in it because the professionals are the ones who have reduced the world to this state”(Durden). – Beppe Grillo
A Dangerous storm of Populism and Authoritarianism has been brewing in Italy since the creation of Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement (M5S) in 2009, threatening the Democratic strides made in recent years in lieu of Italy’s Mussolini era. In the recent Italian general election in March of 2018, due to President Sergio Mattarella’s disbandment of Parliament, the Populist M5S garnered an alarming amount of support, despite the Government’s blatant effort to suppress and deny their legitimacy; raising the argument that the Italian government is dangerously close to paradoxically corrupting its Democratic structure in its efforts to avoid its own Democratic Backslide from culminating into full Democratic Erosion.
In 2017 the Italian government enacted the Rosatellum law, which strengthened the chances of multi-party coalitions winning elections, rather than single parties (like M5S). In her commentary on Democratic Backsliding, Project Muse: On Democratic Backsliding, political analyst Nancy Bermeo defined Backsliding as “the weakening or disassembling of a given set of democratic institutions. Thus it can sometimes occur with the intention of deepening rather than destroying democracy.” While this policy could have been implemented to encourage political party collaboration in order to encourage greater political collaboration, it was most certainly aimed at preventing the success of the rapidly emerging M5S, but does the end justify the means?
Despite the Governments efforts to block M5S’ entrance into to political spectrum M5S won approximately 30% of the people’s vote, but due to the Rosatellum law they were only awarded 106 of over 600 seats, un-democratically preserving Italy’s treasured democracy. The logical answer to why President Sergio and his Government would go to such drastic lengths to keep M5S is a simple one, they truly believe that whatever “undemocratic” measures they take to secure their rule is the lesser of 2 evils in comparison to the result of a M5S’ takeover.
The Five Star Movement is without a doubt a Populist regime, as it relies less on solving complex, structural political issues and plays more to the base fears and desires of the larger mass (the people). The most important aspect of any populist movement is its head, the demagogue, the charismatic man/woman who seizes influence in the moment of political weakness and leads the charge against the corrupt elitist regime (Weyland). Enter renowned comedian and political commentator: Beppa Grillo.
Renewed for his work as a comedian, Grillo’s political monologues were nationally televised in Italy. He is also a well-respected writer as his blog is one of the most read blogs in the country. In 2009 Grillo decided to use his online and social platform to encourage his followers to become candidate in local elections. The beginning of his Populist vendetta achieved in stealing away voters from other deteriorating political parties. Amidst the political turmoil of the paradoxical Italian Government Grillo began organizing mass meetings, artfully called the V Days, or Vaffanculo (Fuck off). He began berating the political system and exposing its corruption. In his rants he masterfully weaved the narrative that there was no more political right or left, simply, one big, homogenous, elitist “political system” leeching the life out of “the people”.
The “Five Star” name refers to its five main issues: sustainable development, right to internet access, environmentalism, publicly owned water, and sustainable (eco-friendly) transport. This nebulous ensemble of focus is inherent of all Populist regimes as it appeals to the widest variety of working and lower class people as possible. It ignores the fact that future agreements on important economic and judicatory policies might be impossible due to extreme heterogeneous assimilation of political players. Binding them dangerously together with the glue of commonality: war against the elites (Weyland).
Backed against the wall the Italian Government threw another wild hook at the M5S and attempted to remove the head of the serpent. They denied Beppa Grillo the opportunity to run for office as he had been charged with manslaughter after an unfortunate car accident. Unfortunately for them the M5S serpent proved to be a hydra and the removal of Beppa Grillo just gave rise to a younger demagogue in Luigi Di Maio (Welle).
The new face of the M5S, Di Maio has an impressive political track record despite his relative youth (31 years old). Di Maio entered Grillo’s circle in 2007 when he helped found the political group, Friends of Beppe Grillo. In 2013 he became the youngest elected Vice President of the Chambers of Deputies in Italian history under the M5S banner. As his popularity and influence in both M5S and the Government grew he became the subject of political attack. In July of 2017 he was both formally investigated and reported for defamation. Fighting fire with fire he shielded himself from a corrupt Government attack with a “corrupt” countermeasure of that same Government’s device: Parliamentary Immunity (Welle).
In September of 2017 Di Maio received 82% of the vote and was officially elected as the head of the Five Star Movement and is now an official candidate for the office of Prime Minister. Despite its efforts to remain Democratic it seems that Italy is doomed to slip back into a form of Authoritarianism. 2 forces are on a dangerously violent collision course, with Democracy straddled in middle. On one side there stands a hungry populist M5S, poised for the take over and fueled by a kindled hatred of the elite. On the opposing side there stands a corrupt and crumbling political skeleton who’s only chance of survival seems to be further corruption and loss of its democratic values (Bermeo). Within the next few years Italy will undoubtedly speed past mere Democratic Backslide and plunge into the cavern of Democratic Erosion, reemerging as the authoritarian beast it fought so hard to suppress.
Bermeo, Nancy. Project Muse. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University, 2002. Print.
Durden, Tyler. “Beppe Grillo: ‘The Amateurs Are Conquering The World Because The ‘Experts’ Destroyed It.’” Zero Hedge, www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-11-20/beppe-grillo-amateurs-are-conquering-world-because-experts-destroyed-it.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Crown Publishing, 2018.
Welle, Deutsche. “Luigi Di Maio: The Populist Leader Eyeing Victory in Rome | News | DW | 23.09.2017.” DW.COM, www.dw.com/en/luigi-di-maio-the-populist-leader-eyeing-victory-in-rome/a-40655247.
Weyland, Kurt. “The Threat from the Populist Left.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 24, no. 3, 2013, doi:10.1353/jod.2013.0045.
Five Star Movement leader, Beppe Grillo. Demotix/eidon photographers.
CAITLIN ELLEN BUCKLEY
Hi, I enjoyed reading your article and find the situation in Italy to be an interesting one, particularly given Italy’s relatively recent fascist past. You were adamant about Italy’s democratic backsliding to the point in which they emerge authoritarian but I’m wonder if there is any way Italy’s current governmental system is salvageable. I suppose people and politicians alike would have to try and find a middle ground, as moderates are the buffer against authoritarianism. It will be interesting to where Italy ends up in the next decade and whether or not the rise of M5S is the beginning of a new wave of anti-democratic sentiment in Europe.
JUSTIN FRIAL AMBROSIO
I find this article interesting because your argument is that regardless of the election results, democratic erosion in Italy is inevitable. You mentioned how the incumbent government has attempted to block the Five Star Movement’s entry into parliament through the constitutional reforms of 2017. This shows the irony of the democratic erosion situation in Italy because extreme parties like League and M5S are very populist and anti-immigrant but at the same time their inability to enter the political landscape is very undemocratic in a shifting political culture. Another important thing to highlight is when you defined the five stars of the M5S movement. I never actually knew what the pillars of the party were and now that they were deconstructed by your article, the future of Italian politics is uncertain. Certainly the M5S is populist, but unlike its predecessor in Mussolini, Grillo’s party is progressive socially. This hybrid populism is dangerous for the prospects of Italian democracy because as you said, authoritarianism may be implemented right under the noses of the entire population.