No laughing matter

Comedian Beppe Grillo's Five-Star Movement is a serious disruption to the usual way of doing politics.

Imagine this as a new political movement’s strategy guide: Rule no. 1: don’t give interviews to the national press, radio and television; Rule no. 2: our leader, who - unlike the rest of us - is very famous, will not stand as a candidate in any elections; Rule no. 3: when we qualify for lavish state funding, we will refuse it.

I could go on, but it would read like a long list of ‘how not to win elections and influence people’. Yet these are just some of the rules of Italy’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S – Five-Star Movement), which in the past year has gone from under 5 per cent in polls to almost 20. In the most recent pre-election surveys, it is running third at around 17 per cent. This is despite none of its members having been interviewed in the Italian media during the campaign – and in a country where the use of television in particular has played a major role in political success, most notably that of Silvio Berlusconi.

Founded in October 2009, the M5S is like no other political movement in Europe. Yes, similar to the Pirate Parties, it places great importance in the Internet. But the M5S is much more than that and the ‘Internet-party’ label is reductive. Rather, the M5S communicates and organizes on two levels: the web and locally. According to the Movement’s ‘non-statute’, its headquarters is the website of one of Italy’s most famous comedians, Beppe Grillo (for almost a decade, his site has also been the country’s most-read blog). Online and offline activities complement one another. Grillo has constantly encouraged his supporters to discuss – both on the internet and in physical locations – the issues he raises on the blog as they relate to local questions in their cities and towns. This has been done through the creation of Beppe Grillo meet-up groups which have formed the nucleus of the movement’s presence all over the country. Both online and offline, activists and supporters discuss the key themes of the M5S: sustainable development, anti-corruption, transparency, direct democracy, the creation of a genuinely free – and fairer – market, a radical overhaul of Italy’s political class and democracy, opposition to austerity and interference in domestic politics by European elites.

While much has been written about Grillo and the M5S in both the Italian and international media, we know very little about those who sympathize with the Movement and what their grievances are. This is particularly true of the Movement’s online followers. To provide a first answer to this, we conducted a survey with Demos of almost 2000 Facebook fans of Grillo and the M5S. As regards who they are, we found that they tend to be male (63 per cent), over the age of 30 (64 per cent) and better educated than the average Italian. 19 per cent, however, were unemployed, as opposed to a national average of circa 11 per cent.

Socio-economic issues worry M5S supporters far more than socio-cultural ones. When asked to list their top two concerns, 62 per cent cited the economic situation and 61 per cent unemployment, with taxation in third place (43 per cent). Despite their fears about Italy’s economy and their own prospects, immigration was seen an opportunity for the country by 56 per cent of those surveyed (well above the Italian average in national surveys of 28 per cent). Rather, what M5S supporters are angry about is the state of democracy in Italy and Europe. 83 per cent stated that they were ‘not at all satisfied’ with Italian democracy and only 8 per cent said they trusted Mario Monti’s technocratic government – abysmally low, but still higher than the 3 per cent who trusted the main political parties and the 2 per cent who trusted parliament. The European Union fared better, but only by comparison, with just 20 per cent of respondents saying they trusted it. Strikingly, the only times when M5S supporters responded positively were when asked if they trusted the Internet (76 per cent) and small-medium enterprises (61 per cent). Combined with just 11 per cent saying they trusted the press and 4 per cent the television, these findings seemed to tally with the communication and mobilization strategies of the M5S. As mentioned above, these focus on the internet and the locality, while ignoring the media which is cast as being at the service of the parties and other elites.

So what now for the M5S? It seems clear from our findings that the Movement is pushing the right buttons for its followers, although – as with all new movements – there is a sizable risk that the discontented supporting it now will also become dissatisfied with the M5S after it enters parliament. On that last point, it is inevitable that the presence of a large number of novice deputies will create organizational and communication problems for the M5S. The Movement will have to prove that it is not another personal party, in a country well used to personal parties. And it will have to balance the expectations and grievances of its followers with the realities of what it can actually achieve. Whichever way the Five-Star Movement story finishes, however, it has proved that you can mobilize discontent in crisis-hit Europe quickly, using innovative combinations of strategies most of Italy’s mainstream politicians would have laughed at a few years ago. They’re not laughing now.

Duncan McDonnell is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences in European University Institute in Florence.

The Demos Report ‘New Political Actors in Europe: Beppe Grillo and the M5S’ is available for download, free of charge, here.

Beppe Grillo. Source: Getty

Duncan McDonnell is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences in European University Institute in Florence. He tweets at @duncanmcdonnell.

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad