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On Italy’s streets, Five Star still twinkles

Grillo: “Flop”? Wishful thinking on behalf of the Italian media Luca Perino/Flickr

Emergency over. Nothing to see here folks. Move on. That was more or less the message on Tuesday morning from Italy’s main newspapers. They were talking about the supposedly poor results of the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S – Five Star Movement) in a round of local elections held on Sunday and Monday. An article in the main financial daily Il Sole 24Ore was typical, referring to Beppe Grillo’s “flop” and claiming that the M5S’s performance bolstered Enrico Letta’s new coalition government of his centre-left Partito Democratico (PD – Democratic Party) and Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PDL – People of Freedom).

In my last column, I wrote about how the abdication by mainstream political parties in favour of technocratic governments damages those same parties and leaves the door open for outsiders promising to restore responsive government to the people. Italy is a case in point. At the February general election, the M5S stunned observers by taking 26% of the vote, the best debut result in post-war Italian history (barring, obviously, the first set of elections). When the PDL and PD respectively abandoned government and opposition to support Mario Monti’s technocratic administration in November 2011, the M5S had been loitering around at under 5% in the polls.

Less than 18 months later, it found itself with 162 MPs (all of them novices) and over 8.6 million votes. The PD, widely expected to triumph easily, lost over three million voters compared to the 2008 general election. The PDL lost over six million. Although the PD’s centre-left coalition just about came first, it secured less than 30% overall and was unable to form a government. And so the PD leaders, like so many before them, climbed into bed beside Berlusconi. This in turn has left the M5S as the largest opposition force in parliament and better-placed than ever to point the finger at the PD and PDL as being essentially the same.

Yet, to read Italy’s columnists and listen to those on a wide variety of the country’s awful current affairs shows this week, one would think that the M5S bubble has already burst. Why? Well, in the very limited set of local elections this weekend, the M5S did nothing like as well as it had in February. Most notably, in Rome – the only one of Italy’s major cities to vote - the relatively unknown M5S candidate for mayor trailed in a distant third with 12.8%. A far cry, Italy’s media gleefully pointed out, from the 27.3% of the vote gained by the M5S in the same city at the general election. Grillo and his movement, so the logic now goes, are on the wane.

Not really. In reality, the media reaction is a mixture of analytical illiteracy and wishful thinking. Let’s take these in order. Firstly, comparing general and local elections as though they were the same is - to put not too fine a point on it - just dumb. In personalised contests for directly-elected mayors, it is entirely normal that a new political force whose local candidates do not have a high profile akin to those of longer-standing parties will be penalised. If we factor in that some of those who voted for the M5S in February made up their minds at the last minute and cannot be considered firm supporters, while others either don’t vote in local elections or decide on the basis of the candidate, then these local results seem less dramatic. Indeed, if you had said to most commentators a year ago that the M5S candidate would get a double digit result in a city like Rome in 2013, they would have laughed.

In fact, the key statistic from these elections was not the M5S result, but the turnout, which fell across the country. In Rome, it declined from 74% to 53%. The PDL sitting mayor in the city saw his number of votes drop by over 400,000. The PD’s candidate, although placing first, got 374,000 votes less than his predecessor in 2008. Italians, who have traditionally voted in greater numbers than most other citizens in Europe, are increasingly choosing not to do so. Disillusioned with the political offer, they are voting with their feet.

Secondly, since most of the Italian media have long held the view that Grillo and the M5S are little other than irresponsible and anti-democratic rabble-rousers, these results have given them something to grab onto. Their hope seems to be that, if they say “it’s falling apart” loud enough, it might come true. Of course, this is not entirely implausible. As I’ve already written here, the M5S is to some extent a victim of its own success. It would be no easy task for any new party to handle the organisational difficulties which such a swift rise brings. And this is even more so for a movement like the M5S which lacks a national central office and the co-ordinating vertical and horizontal structures of normal parties.

However, despite the media noise, the overall outlook for the M5S remains good. I spent most of last week in the north east of Italy, talking to elected representatives and local activists of the movement for a new research project. They are well aware of the difficulties they face. They know that transforming so rapidly from a grassroots organisation with no elected representatives into one of the country’s principal political forces poses massive challenges. And they know they need to join the dots between the different levels of an evolving movement and find better ways of communicating. Nonetheless, they are convinced that the PD and PDL have far bigger troubles.

They are right. Confidence in Letta’s administration is at 45% after its first month in office – the lowest of any new Italian government in the past 20 years. Meantime, the PD elites continue to do what they have always done best: fight among themselves in public over a range of issues from which reforms they should support to who should lead the party. As for the PDL, it continues to show no signs of being anything other than a personal party, still utterly dominated by Berlusconi and unlikely to last beyond his political lifespan. Both the PD and PDL thus have very serious question marks over their long-term futures. And, if they can look beyond rejoicing at the M5S results, they’ll see that just as in the general election, at the local elections they both lost another large chunk of voters compared to last time around. This week, they may be fiddling in Rome. But their parties continue to burn.