Poor administration, lack of trust: The end of Five Stars Movement?

Beppe Grillo Beppe Grillo (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Beppe Grillo’s party seems to be falling under its own weapons.

The Five Star Movement, Movimento 5 Stelle or M5S, is arguably Italy’s most vocal anti-establishment party, pursuing the dream of the absolute popular sovereignty. An energetic and very successful project, over the last year it has suffered a number of setbacks, and its collapse might be near.

M5S was founded in 2009 by Beppe Grillo, an Italian comedian, and Gianroberto Casaleggio, an Italian entrepreneur with strong expertise in institutional communication. Casaleggio is responsible for what became the M5S motto: “There is not a right-wing or left-wing idea. There are good and bad ideas”. It is precisely the traditional partisan distinctions that M5S seeks to overcome.

According to M5S, true democracy can only be reached by replacing the traditional representative system with full popular sovereignty. Such direct democracy would take decisions on all matters.

In this process, “the Net” is fundamental, namely the allegedly well-informed citizens grouped under the massively popular Beppe Grillo’s Blog — it is the most visited blog in Italy and among the 10 most visited in the world — and other internet media affiliated with M5S, such as TzeTze, La Cosa, il Blog delle Stelle. These sites are owned, in fact, by Casaleggio Associati, the IT communication enterprise of M5S co-founder Gianroberto Casaleggio. He was the mind behind the M5S blog system, as well as its direct-democracy and non-partisan ideology.

It is one thing to use irrationality methodically, and another to use irrationality irrationally.

Such a design is morally appreciable, but in practice it proves to be problematic, rather ineffectual, and clearly flirts with irrationality. On the other hand, the technical build-up of M5S shows that its architects have well understood the suggestive, falsely syllogistic, dynamics that does govern today’s political communications.Irrationality is not always a morally despicable way of propaganda, but it has a major drawback: it ends up suffering from overconfidence. It is one thing to use irrationality methodically, and another to use irrationality irrationally (forgive the pun). The Five-Star Movement is showing signs of suffering from the latter.

Recent events are not helpful towards the Movement. Firstly, note the recent fuss about M5S’s switch from the Euroskeptic EFDD group in the European Parliament to the pro-Europe, liberal ALDE. Considering MS5’s philosophy, the proposal for this switch and the online voting (78% voted in favour of ALDE) are quite odd. It was not a good idea: ALDE rejected M5S’s self-candidacy to join its lines, while Farage’s EFDD imposed strict diktats on the Movement’s policies as a precondition for accepting it back into the Euroskeptic group.

Besides, Grillo is not new to this sort of oddities. In 2009, after having repeatedly presented candidate mayors in several Italian communes and vowed his opposition to the centre-leftist Democratic Party / Partito Democratico (PD), he presented his intention to subscribe to the same party and stand for its secretariat.

Secondly, the situation in Italy is similarly critical. Several politicians, including several parliamentarians and mayors across Italy, have been forced to quit because of online accusations and initiated judicial investigations against them. Mayor Virginia Raggi of Rome, a M5S member, has been experiencing a hard time over allegations of corruption in her administration, especially since last December, when her right-hand manager Raffaele Marra was arrested for illicit real-estate activities. Meanwhile, she nominated Renato Marra (Raffaele’s brother) to Rome’s Department of Tourism, a nomination she later withdrew.

Raggi is currently under investigation and has been called to interrogation. Of course one can say that Rome is a special case. The eternal city seems to be pathologically affected by corruption and inefficiency: just before Raggi, in the umpteenth series of scandals, the former mayor Ignazio Marino was forced to resign by his own administration, crushed by the judicial investigation named Mafia Capitale, which revealed a Mafia-like system of corruption in the capitol’s public tenders.

With a past of this sort, Rome has all it takes to be M5S’s fortress, and, at the same time, to be a cause for its ruin. Grillo knows it: Raggi’s administration triumphs, M5S stays in the race. If the opposite happens, M5S risks being identified itself as “one more of those corrupted parties”. Which is why the Movement is using its best efforts to protect the Roman mayor.

By now everyone in Italy knows that when a M5S politician is suspected of illicit behaviour, a vote is immediately organised on the Net for his/her expulsion. The M5S charter provides for the absolute and unconditional spotlessness of its politicians. Not surprisingly, the online polls have always been supportive of expulsion measures. Rather than the triumph of democracy, this smacks of witch-hunt. A strong political antagonist can easily exploit it: it will suffice to initiate a formal investigation against, say, a MS5 mayor, to start a process that will most likely lead to the mayor’s resignation from office. Plus, in Italy, public prosecutors can investigate anyone without needing to answer for that – just because it is an investigation, not an accusation.

But maybe, finally, Raggi’s misadventures have made Grillo realise the shortcomings of this approach and led him to propose a new charter on its politicians’ involvement in judicial matters, that for the moment is not official because of quorum issues. The charter provides for the expulsion of M5S politicians that are found guilty of an illicit behaviour – being simply under investigation would not anymore constitute a reason to vote for an expulsion.

Internal strife, however, goes further. The Movement’s charter is being filed against by a group of M5S activists – mostly expelled politicians – who claim that the “expulsions method” in itself is illegal. If this wins, the M5S directorate won’t have the power to expel its members of parliament, or mayors or any of its associates elected to public office. What is more, the legitimacy of M5S itself is being questioned in a trial promoted by lawyer Venerando Monello – a PD member – that seeks to prove an illegal conduct of Casaleggio Associati as private company controlling de facto M5S and, thus, a public-interest body.

Thirdly, there has been a good number of reports that do not contribute to the image of the Five Star Movement either. Among them, a factual, widely echoed report of BuzzFeed pointed out in compelling terms why M5S is dangerous for Europe. While a wiser choice would have been a competent reply to such accusations, M5S in a short note only vaguely referred to the “spreading of false news”.

This situation may well be the result of two dynamics: the Net, and the recklessness of Grillo’s proposals. The Net, on its side, cannot be judged much of a culprit, because it undogmatically follows the use that Grillo and the M5S directorate make of it. The Blog, capable of orienting and informing M5S supporters, is mostly self-referential: it doesn’t seek to obtain the approval of its audience, and it doesn’t need to because its findings cannot even be questioned by its public. A profile that matches allegations by ex-M5S deputies describing Casaleggio’s shadow over the movement as ‘controlling everything’.

The overall picture is rather critical. The Five Star Movement has a praiseworthy moral ground, and certainly remarkable merits. Among them, the revival of people’s involvement in public life, which is awfully low in most developed countries. But the online means used by M5S also have drawbacks: dangers lie in the internet’s capacity to manipulate public opinion, especially when handled by an IT communication enterprise like Casaleggio Associati. It becomes easy to attract the public by verging on populistic clamour and instinctive judgement. The web as such may be part of the problem, being associated with computers and other non-human “objective” elements. In fact, it still benefits of an aura of unquestionability among basic users that can lead one to believe any self-referential news spread online.

M5S’s tools have an enormous potential that can be either constructive or destructive, and needs, therefore, conscientious handling: it can lead the citizenry to sounder, rational thinking, or to new persecutions, summary judgements and, finally, conflict.

Niko Costantino

Niko Costantino holds a BA in Languages and International Relations from the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and MA in International Relations with Political Strategy and Communication from the Brussels School of International Studies (University of Kent). His main interests include Mediterranean and European relations, cultural diplomacy and non-state actors. He collaborates with the think tank KEDISA as foreign policy analyst and participates in NGOs by advising communication and lobbying strategies.

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