How internal tensions in Italy’s Five Star Movement threaten the party’s reinvention

Five Star’s founders may yet undermine the attempt by former prime minister Giuseppe Conte to transform the party into a centre-left, green force.

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Italy's techno-populist Five Star Movement (M5S) was first created in 2009, promising to put citizens back in control of politics. Key to this vision was its Rousseau online voting platform, in which M5S's registered supporters voted on key proposals, with MPs compelled to follow the majority line. As internet use became the norm in late-2000s Italy, Rousseau founder Gianroberto Casaleggio proclaimed that Italians no longer needed politicians or parliament, when they could take part in online referendums instead.

Fuelled by the long-term decline of the centre-left, the financial crisis, and disgust at Silvio Berlusconi, M5S quickly rose from nothing to become Italy's top-polling party, and in 2018 becoming the main party of government.

Yet three years on, the eclectic movement has been part of three wildly divergent coalitions; the first with the far-right Lega of Matteo Salvini, the second with the centre-left Democrats, and the third and current incarnation as part of a national government under prime minister Mario Draghi, the former president of the European Central Bank. Over the course of that period it has sunk from 32 per cent to 16 per cent support in the polls.

Last Friday (23 April) brought a new low point as the owner of Rousseau – Casaleggio's son, Davide – quit M5S, taking with him not only its online voting platform but also its official blog and its claimed 190,000 registered supporters' contact details.

[see also: Why Italy remains ungovernable]

The Firm

For all the talk of direct citizen power, M5S was from the outset a family business, with Gianroberto Casaleggio's death in 2016 bringing a hereditary succession as Davide took over.

Just as Berlusconi had in the 1990s made his private TV channels his political pulpit, in the 2000s the Casaleggio-run websites – including ex-comedian Beppe Grillo's blog, which peaked at some 250,000 hits a day – offered a platform for M5S's leader-owners, unfiltered by journalists and able to corner their own ad revenues.

The acrimonious split was a long time coming; the Rousseau owner had for months attacked the party’s MPs and senators for not paying from their parliamentary salaries the €1.3m a year Casaleggio said was needed for Rousseau's upkeep. In turn, M5S figures have accused Casaleggio, who is not an elected representative, of interfering in the party's internal decision-making process: forever a problem in an online "democracy" allowing only Yes/No votes on questions and where the candidate lists are decided among M5S power-brokers.

The deeper split was political, in particular reflecting moves to make former premier Giuseppe Conte the party’s leader, which would have required a vote on Rousseau. Since M5S has no structures allowing any kind of public discussion or reckoning with its failures other than splits, it has for years veered erratically from one position to another, with supporters voting by huge margins (what Italians call "Bulgarian majorities") for opposite ends of a question.

Blown by the winds of opportunism, M5S supporters thus rubber-stamped a pact with Matteo Salvini's far-right Lega in June 2018, and then a coalition with the soft-left Democrats in September 2019. It completed the possible set of alliances in February this year, joining a pact with Salvini and the Democrats (as well as Berlusconi), in a new government led by former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi. In each case, M5S's smaller coalition partners always imposed their own, more determined agenda.

The M5S's role in the near-total union of parliamentary forces under Draghi's leadership is richly ironic given Casaleggio's original "anti-establishment" agenda. M5S's weak political orientation is further reflected in its need to draw in Conte – independent prime minister in both the M5S-Lega and M5S-Democratic governments – as a figure able to rebuild its support around his own profile. He was not even an M5S member until this February.

Upon his first appointment as premier three years ago Conte was a little-known law professor, with neither an elected office nor even a Wikipedia page to his name. Nonetheless, over time Conte has gained a reputation as a cool head and a figure of broadly progressive instincts. Now in the process of being anointed as M5S leader with its co-founder Grillo's backing, he seeks to make it a more conventional centre-left force, extending recent experiments at alliance with the Democrats in mayoral and regional elections.

Grillo

While the split with Rousseau marks the end of M5S's ties to the Casaleggio clan, its bid for "normalisation" is severely hampered by Grillo's own outsized, unaccountable presence in the party. At its electoral height, power in M5S swung from Grillo to its public officials such as Luigi di Maio (today foreign minister) and Rome mayor Virginia Raggi, but its dismal polling scores have boosted his status as a power-broker. And while at the peak of his marginalisation in 2018 his blog was split from M5S's own (now in Casaleggio's hands), today his personal page is a liability for the party.

Grillo's destabilising influence was well illustrated on 19 April, as he posted a video responding to news of a police investigation of his 20-year-old-son, Ciro, for involvement in an alleged 2019 gang rape in Sardinia. In a furious, expletive-laden rant, the 72-year-old Grillo – the historic leader of the largest party in the Italian parliament – attacked the teenage victim for her delay in going to the police, mocking her for having "gone kitesurfing first". This Monday, it was reported that Grillo had hired a private detective to look into the 19-year-old complainant's private life.

The video was entitled "journalists or judges?", hinting at Grillo's long-standing resistance to media scrutiny. In the M5S's early years, its MPs were regularly expelled for appearing on TV rather than the websites run by Casaleggio. Last month Grillo drew ridicule for his "notes" to broadcasters, insisting that M5S representatives should never be interrupted, and nor should camera shots turn from their face to include either their shoes or other guests.

If Conte hoped the long-trailed split with Casaleggio would ease M5S's transformation into a progressive mainstream force, Grillo's disreputable antics hardly help him present a clean break. He responded to Grillo's comments by insisting that whatever Grillo's personal distress, "there are others who must be protected and whose feelings must be absolutely respected, namely the young girl directly involved”.

Conte's public interventions since he was forced from the prime minister's office in February have broadly laid the base for the M5S's reinvention as a centre-left and green force. Over the rest of Draghi's premiership, likely lasting till elections that must be held by spring 2023, Conte will surely be able to corner some Recovery Fund spending for M5S-associated projects and stake out his own political identity. Rather more difficult are his plans to impose order on M5S itself.

[See also: Attending a gathering of ultra conservatives in Rome]

David Broder is Europe editor of Jacobin and the author of First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy.

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