Beppe Grillo: Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution for Italy’s Democratic Party?

Many aspects of the recent Italian general elections surprised observers and commentators, from the extent to which established political parties such as the center-left Democratic Party and the center-right People of Freedom Party lost consensus across the country (receiving respectively 3.5 million and 6.2 million of votes less than in the previous elections), to the unforeseen success of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. Given the dearth of information and media coverage in the run up to the elections of the Five Star Movement, perhaps most surprising was its success. This movement, which is not a party, was only created at the end of 2009 and, running for the first time at the national level, gathered 8 Million votes, equaling one quarter of the electorate. The Five Star Movement is now the largest single group in the lower house.

The Italian establishment as a whole, from the political class, to the main media groups and the economic lobbies, had disregarded Grillo, and often depicted him as a populist, demagogue, enraged and dangerous political figure, without lending him any credibility. Yet the former comedian has in the past few years effectively transformed himself into a media-savvy political entrepreneur. The refusal to engage with Grillo on the personal level has translated into the inability to engage with the issues his movement has consistently waged for: formulating a law against corruption, reducing the costs of the political establishment, adopting models of environmentally sustainable development, defending public goods, creating a more transparent and more efficient public administration. More than anything else, the movement has battled for the moralization of political and economic life and for the primacy of politics vis-à-vis economics. However, rather than recognizing, both instrumentally but also existentially, the issues where convergence would be desirable in the interest of real reforms, the Democratic Party has often demonized Grillo and refrained from distinguishing him from the movement and its campaigns. The strategy of ignoring the wave of discontent, even when it came coupled with pragmatic proposals to deal with public affairs, has backfired and the Democratic Party is, once again, now in a difficult soul-searching phase.

Rather than seeing in such a protest movement (an anti-establishment, albeit not an anti-political movement) an antidote for post-democracy and its illnesses, the Democratic Party has retrenched. It failed to run an electoral campaign, falsely self-confident that the fear of a Berlusconi come-back or a renewal of painful austerity measures by Mario Monti would suffice to scare voters towards its ranks. The party failed to build any kind of narrative articulating the challenges Italy faces as well as pointing out what the light at the end of the tunnel might look like. It likely did so because it assumed that there is no autonomy for politics vis-à-vis economics and its constraints. The Democratic Party fell in the trap of believing that economic imperatives will dictate the pace of changes and reforms and that Italian political decisions will continue be taken elsewhere, be it Brussels or international financial markets.

In voting for Grillo, a quarter of the electorate has chosen a different approach. One where communication is simple, where proposals are advanced, where new ideas are tested, and where getting people involved, in some embryonic form of liquid democracy, is encouraged. Grillo’s voters feel that sovereignty should be exercised independently from Brussels and financial markets. Their starting point is the necessity to react to the rapid shrinking of the middle class which has accelerated since the global financial crisis hit Italy, exacerbating a stagnating political and economic system. The Five Star Movement aims for a resurgence of conscience and will to engage in political activities, at all levels. And therefore it should be an inspiration for traditional political parties, given its effective style of communication, innovative and truly interactive use of social media, the way in which it selects political personnel from civil society, and the issues it chooses to prioritize, emanating from local demands directly affecting civic and public life.

Grillo’s voters, like many other Italians, point to a desire for ”more” and not less politics, closer to them, which is able to listen rather than preach and lecture. They believe that professional politicians need to earn popular respect on the basis of what they deliver, a somehow revolutionary message in 2013 Italy.

Of course, one should not be fooled and forget that having a non-elected leader of a movement whose non-statute was written by only two people and never put to a vote is also not ideal. Yet while the Five Star logo is the property of Grillo and not the movement itself, one should not confuse the founder with its members.

The Five Star Movement has its contradictions, many of which remain to be discovered and brought to life. But much could be learned from the movement which could help revitalize the way in which politics is conducted in Italy. Italy’s traditional parties should embrace the Five Star Movement’s vitality, accepting and endorsing the idea and practice of citizens regularly expressing their dissent, and using protest and pressures to encourage change from within the party system.

Now the Five Star Movement’s “citizen-deputies” will be torn between two opposing objectives, the desire to realize some of the most pressing issues within their platform, and their goal of serving as an “outsider” watchdog designed to denounce the mistakes and corruption of the existing political elites. It is the tension between these two goals that will test the truly democratic nature of the Movement, and the autonomy of its elected representatives vis-à-vis their non-elected leader, Beppe Grillo.