Can Europe Make It?

Death of a movement

The Five Star Movement courageously portraying itself as above political over-simplifications is a fruitless exercise in an age of strong polarisations.

Alessio Colonnelli
3 February 2020
Luigi di Maio (M5S) attends a meeting demonstrating the unity of the coalition government, October 25, 2019, Narni, Italy.
Luigi di Maio (M5S) attends a meeting demonstrating the unity of the coalition government, October 25, 2019, Narni, Italy.
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Jacopo Landi/PA. All rights reserved.

The Five Star Movement (M5S) is dying a slow death; perhaps undeservedly so. It’s done a lot to revive a political conscience in many Italians. But, regional elections in Italy are significant steps towards a general election; and if the latest are anything to go by, then the yellow party is affected by an infirmity worse than polling jaundice.

On 26 January, in both Emilia-Romagna and Calabria, M5S came third; its share of the vote was respectively 4.7% and 6.3%. This was an especially bad showing. The starred movement received considerably less support than the Democratic Party (PD), the junior member in Italy’s M5S-led government: it trailed behind the social democrats by a jaw dropping 30% in the northern region (PD won there with 34.7%) and a striking 9.4% in the deep south, where PD, despite receiving the most votes for a single party (15.2%), still lost to the centre-right alliance commandeered by Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

No wonder no one followed M5S’s example in Europe; it felt doomed from the start. That’s clear now. Stubbornly refusing left or right definitions and courageously portraying itself as above political over-simplifications is a fruitless exercise in an age of strong polarisations: you come across as neither fish nor fowl, whether you actually deserve to be told that or not.

M5S still governs in Rome; and may well continue until the end of the current legislature (2023).

Perhaps M5S can be better defined as the biggest awkward cuss right now in the Italian political room. It does badly in the polls and it performs even worse in nationally relevant regional elections – Emilia-Romagna and Calabria’s residents put together make a tenth of Italy’s population. A suspected trend has now been confirmed. Yet, M5S still governs in Rome; and may well continue until the end of the current legislature (2023).

Italians, unlike Britons and Spaniards, are being called less frequently to vote in a general election. Only twice in the past seven years. There’s a conscious effort on the part of the establishment, of which M5S are now firmly part, to improve Italy’s shaky – seen often as flippant – reputation. Constantly changing governments make markets suspicious, which leads to more expensive borrowing for an already heavily indebted state. M5S have learned this very basic lesson; and have thus stopped banging on against the EU. But they have also lost the innovative energy that propelled them into government in the first place. Now, they look just like anyone else – suited and booted, grey, but with less experience.

Recipe for failure

Ambiguous politics don’t pay. This may have its merits, short-to-medium-term, but long-term – and M5S have been in government for two years – you know you’re bound to derail: tracks ought to be as straight as possible. This is the lesson voters have taught Italy and elsewhere, in recent times.

Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Brexit, an age-defining issue, was negatively paradigmatic: by not sticking to the same take, whichever it might have been, throughout the entire exit process, the London socialist dug his political grave with an invisible spade. He didn’t even know he was holding one. A Eurosceptic all his life, Corbyn strangely campaigned to stay in Europe; then, at the time of triggering Article 50, MPs were bullied into voting for it. Eventually, Corbyn conceded that a second referendum was on his party’s cards, making matters shockingly worse. In other words, the Islington North MP was the only one in the country to swerve and proudly leave conspicuous red skid marks on British roads; the more these stood out, the more drivers were alerted to them and steered clear – frightened. Change red to yellow, and you’ve got a M5S recipe for failure – just as tasty as Labour’s.

What is their purpose?

Much has been said abroad about another Italian movement, an unofficial one, originating from civic society – the so-called ‘Sardines’, who packed Italy’s squares, especially in the north and centre, to oppose the right’s harsh rhetoric. Their contribution to PD’s exploits was tangible, but can be overstated. It certainly revived interest in politics among those who don’t vote or who stopped a long time ago, in a similar fashion to early-day M5S – these voters saw that the red party was the only bastion against the proposed policies of the hard-right (the self-styled liberal conservatism of Forza Italia does little to curb them). But M5S’ botched basic income policy did a lot to dent the movement’s reputation. The south of Italy can see it does not deliver; the larger a family the less the M5S-concocted basic income makes a difference. And so, in the absence of a clear vision as how to curb unemployment, why vote for them still?

Put more simply: what is their purpose?

This piece was originally published in the author's blog, Thoughts on Europe, on January 30, 2020.

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