An online comedian, actor, and blogger, Beppe Grillo, shifted his personal profession into becoming the founder of a political movement, changing Italy’s standards to a pre-democratic nation; in which, we have seen in Italy’s historical authoritarian narrative. Grillo is the founder of the 2009 Five Star Movement, (M5S). The Five Star Movement stands for the five core values of the party: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, right to internet access, and environmentalism. How and under what circumstances did this comedian shift Italian politics and urge the people to socially advocate and vote in this social movement into a political party in the Italian government for over a decade? Ironic how the democratic right to vote and participate in politics has been dominated by this movement to decrease democratic ideals.
Beppe Grillo understood the dynamic of social unrest Italy was going through, with the increase of illegal and undocumented migrants, rate of unemployment, poverty, and economic instability in his nation with the influence of globalization from the European Union. Grillo, as a web strategist, revolutionized this unrest into a movement against migrants and promoted an anti-euro approach, during his movement, as well as undermining democratic legitimacy in the process.
In 2008, during the economic recession, while other nations were recovering, “Italy’s GDP fell 0.2 percent, and got stuck in a triple-dip recession. Yes, triple: its economy started shrinking in 2008, relapsed in 2011, and now again in 2014. In short, Italy missed the boom, but it hasn’t missed the bust, which is still going on because of bad policy. Seven years later, Italy’s economy is still 9 percent smaller than it was before the crisis,” . Nearly 5 million Italian citizens are unemployed with 3 million of them living in poverty. Italy has accepted more than 500,000 undocumented immigrants, while its economy is failing to serve the people first. Their international obligation to take immigrants into their country, as a member of the European Union, was challenged with rising skepticism against the liberal government- first in 2008 with the economy, and then with the immigration crisis in 2014, with migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea and smuggling in the country on the Italian coast, which is still an issue they face today. Beppe Grillo and his movement appealed to the one-third population of Italy’s unemployed youth, for a government where they can complete their college education and find full-time jobs, he appealed to the citizens for a chance in economic growth, and abolishing corrupt leaders, kicking out immigrants, and by far his Euro-skepticism and promise of environmentalism shifted the culture of Italian politics. The Five Star Movement functioned on internet-based direct democracy and government transparency. The information for their campaign was easily accessible and the youth supported the movement to stay in their nation and protect Italian rights first by promoting their will of employment and government legitimacy for citizens. The youth and elder appealed to the political party to protect their borders against the migrants who were washing out their ‘white culture.’
The Five Star Movement ultimately attempted to collaborate with other conservative parties and groups in Italy, such as the jointment of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group, and other far right-wing political parties in 2014 through 2017. Leaders of the Five Star Movement forged their political ideologies with the far-right and even the left wing in government. Political leader Matteo Salvini forged the populist ideas of the Five Star Party with his own personal political party of center-left Democratic Party (PD) of Italy, gaining more power in the political atmosphere. By 2018 elections, the Five Star Party gained 32% of voter support and “eventually formed a coalition with Matteo Salvini’s populist, anti-migrant League.” With financial, employment, and migration instability voters found themselves advocating for their national rights first, rather than the globalization of Italian politics and their membership with the European Union. Italy had mostly remained a majority of demographically Italian citizens. The increase of migrants was not appropriately accepted by the people, because they were already economically frustrated. With the alliance of the Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini, Lega Party, the jointment of their policies planned to deport the 500,000 illegal immigrants and review their strategy on the Italian shores. “Their agreement also calls for a renegotiation of the Dublin Refugee Treaty, and for “unregistered” Roma camps to be shut down.”  Lega’s alliance with the M5S captured 50% of the elections votes in 2018 and has been the toughest target on immigrants seeking refuge in Italy, since their post-war history.
Political elites like Luigi Di Maio transformed the party to a purely protest of several policies re-establishing the movements notably euro-skeptic position and shifting the standard to remain in the eurozone and abandoned any “mention of leaving their membership in the European Union. “ This may be a good sign for Italy’s upholding of their membership in the EU, where their strategies can not become too extreme against immigrants or their economic business partnerships with EU countries; however, their willingness to close their borders against any immigrants and approach the immigrants as an influx of wiping out their traditionally Italian culture is a sign of democratic backsliding of integration of migrants.
This sounds a little familiar doesn’t it? America first, maybe? Make America Great Again, perhaps? When nations isolate themselves from the international stage with the rise of authoritarianism and populist movements or political parties, they find themselves in isolation, a state where they decide to assert the best interests for their country, and keep international affairs to a distance. Under the administration of Donald Trump, American citizens and the international community feared the rise of authoritarian rule, as well, because his political perspective was extremely isolating the United States from foreign policy matters, immigrants, and agreements like the Paris Treaty, ban on muslims, etc… In the narrative of Italy, a member of the European Union, and a state of high and low waves of democratic erosion and democratic building, the Five Star Movement has isolated Italy from EU negotiations and agreements. The political League has avoided the discussion regarding the migrants coming into Italy, and decided upon their own M5S-majority parliament that they are not to grant migrants citizenship or residency.
As Steven Levinsky puts it, democracies can be evoked through even “legal” ways “in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts,” or maybe even through the elections and voter-turnout of the people. In a case like Italy, the people believed in this movement as a way to remove corrupt leaders from the economic devastation the country faced and ‘improve’ democracy or the state through the means of combating against immigration and adapt to the idea that maybe ordinary citizens are better equipped in government than corrupt politicians.
- Giuffrida, A., 2020. Italy’S Immigrants Fear Tough Times As Populist Coalition Heads For Power. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/19/italy-far-right-lega-five-star-immigrants> [Accessed 22 November 2020].
- Thelocal.it. 2019. How The Rebel Five Star Movement Joined Italy’s Establishment. [online] Available at: <https://www.thelocal.it/20190902/how-the-rebel-five-star-movement-joined-italy-establishment> [Accessed 11 November 2020].
- Birnbaum, M. and Pitrelli, S., 2016. Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Euro Populists Gain Ground In Italy As Prime Minister Resigns. [online] The Washington Post. Available at: <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/as-italys-leader-exits-a-door-opens-for-anti-elite-populists/2016/12/05/9eb4a5d6-ba83-11e6-ae79-bec72d34f8c9_story.html> [Accessed 27 September 2020].
- O’Brien, M., 2014. Italy’S Triple-Dip Recession Has Wiped Out All Its Growth Since 2000. [online] The Washington Post. Available at: <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/08/07/italys-triple-dip-recession-has-wiped-out-all-its-growth-since-2000/> [Accessed 27 September 2020].
- Horowitz, J., 2020. As Five Star Party Risks Implosion, Italy Fears The Fallout. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/18/world/europe/italy-five-star.html> [Accessed 20 September 2020].
Hi Dilek ! I found your article really interesting especially the comparison of Trump and Grillo due to their populist agenda’s. Something I found thought-provoking that distinguished between the two was youth support. You mention that Grillo’s far right-wing party was widely accepted by younger voters, but that same demographic is not seen prevalently among Trump voters. While there are a lot of young people who voted from Trump, NYT exit poll reports 60% of people ages 18-29 voted from Biden. I wonder what trends can explain that fundamental difference in voter base. Populist candidates do a good job of appealing to voters by othering a certain group. Both Grillo and Trump due this by villainizing immigrants. I wonder if Grillo also propagated a “return to the good old days” narrative that describes a time period where life was actually a lot worse for those minority groups that are now being blamed for the countries job market and declining economy. I also wonder if Grillo’s focus on the environment had an impact on young voters in Italy? It’s interesting in Italy how far right-wing policies are not synonymous with climate change denial