The Five Star Movement: how a comedian’s non-party became Italy’s biggest political force

Five Star promises the introduction of a “citizenship income”. Yet its leader calls Mediterranean rescue boats “sea taxis”.

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Following a strongly divisive electoral campaign, Italy awoke on Monday 5 March to a completely different Parliament. Having obtained 32.6 per cent of the vote share, the Five Star Movement – led by the 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio – became the largest Italian party, in a result that contradicted the predictions of several surveys published just weeks ago. 

Despite its apparent success, the Five Star Movement has been left in a complicated situation; without sufficient seats to form a government. In fact, the centre-right coalition obtained 37 per cent of the votes, albeit divided among three major parties: the anti-immigrant Lega (17.5 per cent), the former PM Silvio Berlusconi's Force Italy (14 per cent) and the nationalist party Brothers of Italy (4.3 per cent).

The first meeting of the new Parliament is scheduled for 23 March. By then, the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, will have to decide what to do. He wants to give the responsibility of forming the government to those able to form a clear majority. Five Star has already claimed to be “the pillar of the legislature”: but now Di Maio will have to find enough votes to support a government led by him. This plan is undermined by the fact that Five Star has always rebuffed any agreement with the more traditional parties, although Di Maio did repeatedly argue during the election campaign that there could be a deal if the other parties would agree to support his electoral program.

At the moment, thus, there are two main options for the Five Star Movement: an agreement with the right-wing Lega, the party headed by Matteo Salvini (a supporter of Marine Le Pen during France's 2017 general elections), or with the Democratic Party, whose leader Matteo Renzi announced his plans to resign after his electoral defeat. As a long term opponent of Luigi Di Maio and his Five Star Movement, Renzi’s departure could facilitate an agreement between the two parties.

The Five Star Movement, initially a “non-party”, was born in October 2009. The aim of its founder, Beppe Grillo – a former Italian comedian – was to give voters an alternative to both the left and right.

In 2006, before funding the Five Star Movement, Grillo launched a series of local meetings to mobilise citizens across Italy and discuss issues such as environmentalism and the fight against corruption. The following year he then organised the V-Day in Bologna (where V stood for a very rude Italian word along the lines of go fuck yourself.) This was a day of public mobilisation, in which Grillo and his allies collected signatures in support of a law calling for voters to choose their candidates directly (rather than through party lists), and prevent the possible election of convicted criminals and MPs who had already completed two legislatures.

Until 2013, the Five Star Movement took part only in local elections, succeeding in winning important cities like Parma, a historic centre-left stronghold. In the 2013 general elections, however, the Five Star got 25.6 per cent of the vote, becoming the largest opposition party to the government. In 2016, the Five Star Movement won the elections in the capital Rome and in Turin, northern Italy's second most populous city.

The main Five Star proposal is the introduction of a “citizenship income”, which would see the unemployed paid €780 a month – provided they are performing weekly community service and seeking work – while those earning less than this basic income would receive the difference from the government. According to the National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), the plans would cost €14.9bn for a total of eight-and-a-half million people – a figure increased to an annual €17bn, by the Five Star Movement's plans to also strengthen labour policies. 

Through reducing MPs’ salaries and, more generally, waste and privileges of politicians, Five Star also wants to cut €50bn from the cost of politics. 

However the party's manifesto also includes policies on security that may appeal to supporters of the Lega, the anti-immigrant party led by Salvini, who is part of the center-right coalition. In addition to pledges for 10,000 new recruits for law enforcement agencies and two new prisons, Five Star promises to crackdown on immigration, with Di Maio – who once called the rescue vessels in the Mediterranean “sea taxis” –  a vocal critic of the migrant crisis’s handling.

Indeed, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini are the two great winners of this general election. The former managed to establish Five Star as the main party in Italy, despite the entire establishment and almost all the media being deployed against it. The second led the Lega from 4 per cent to a 17 per cent vote share in less than four years, exceeding the votes of the party’s main ally, Silvio Berlusconi.

Yet while the Five Star Movement and the Lega are close on issues such as security and immigration, an electoral agreement is not simple to achieve. The Five Star Movement has an unorthodox electoral base, which, as seen in previous local elections, is partly similar to that of the centre-left. For this reason, an agreement with the Lega could damage Di Maio. In the same way, however, an agreement with the Democratic Party and with Free and Equals – a left-wing party – does not seem any easier. It is not impossible, however, that the Five Star Movement tries to form a government without having a majority and relies on the support of the centre-right and centre-left on specific proposals.

The first trial for the Five Star Movement will take place on 23 March, when the new Parliament will have to elect the new presidents of the Chamber and Senate, and a broad agreement will be necessary. What is certain until then, however, is that the Five Star is now at a crossroads between two compromises. Both of them risk damaging the image of a movement that began by attacking the system.