M5S takes Rome and Turin
With the help of elements of the left, Beppe Grillo’s crew has gained ground in former working class strongholds. Toby Abse reports
June 19 signalled a major shift in Italian politics, with the clear emergence of Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement - M5S) as the main electoral opposition to prime minister Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico (PD).
The results in the 143 municipalities in which voting took place this year tell a very clear story. On the one hand, in 19 of the 20 municipalities in which M5S got into the second-round run-off ballot, they took the mayoralty. Conversely the second round has marked a major defeat for the PD - of the 90 municipalities it held in the previous municipal elections, it now has only 45, exactly half of their old mayoral total. As Grillo declared on his blog in the immediate aftermath of the Roman victory, “Now it’s our turn. And it’s only the beginning.”
The decline of Forza Italia as a national force, despite its mayoral candidates’ relatively good showings in Milan and, to a lesser degree, in Naples, has, of course, been hastened by the increasing ill health of the 79-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, who is currently in hospital having undergone open-heart surgery. As for Berlusconi’s younger, more racist and extreme rightwing challengers - Giorgia Meloni of the neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) and Matteo Salvini of the right-populist Lega Nord - they have a problem in winning a genuinely national electoral following. Salvini’s base is largely confined to Lombardy and the Veneto, whilst Meloni is essentially the heir of the neo-fascist tradition associated with Rome and its surrounding region of Lazio. Whilst the recent alliance of the Lega and FdI within Italy and their common links at a European level with Marine Le Pen’s neo-fascist Front National to some extent mitigates their regional limitations, the rise of M5S prevents them from becoming an electoral force of equivalent strength to the FN.1
In passing, it should be pointed out that M5S is better organised as a national force than as a local one, contrary to its propaganda. Its authoritarian, top-down, centralised structure means it often lacks the vibrant local organisation that would be required to fight every council election - quite apart from the counterproductive bans on contesting council elections that Grillo and Davide Casaleggio (who has inherited his father’s iron grip on M5S’s internet apparatus) often use against mildly dissident local branches.
Virginia Raggi of M5S, as I predicted,2 took the mayoralty of Rome. Her victory was an absolutely overwhelming one - beyond my expectations and those of most commentators; and, as she admitted, beyond the expectations of Raggi herself, given her very recent entry into the political scene. She scored 67.2% against PD candidate Roberto Giacchetti’s 32.8%, almost doubling her 35.2% result in the first round.
Moreover, M5S has also taken Turin - something which I regarded as a real possibility, but by no means a certainty, following the first round. Chiara Appendino’s 54.6% was a considerable increase on her 30.9% in the first round, whilst the PD’s outgoing mayor, Piero Fassino, only raised his percentage from 41.8% in the first round to 45.4% in the run-off.
However, whilst the Roman outcome was primarily the result of rightwing transfers from the neo-fascist FdI, who gained 20.6% in the first round, in the Torinese case it is hard to believe that the PD’s defeat in such a working class city was entirely the result of the de facto alliance between M5S and the right. The decision of Paolo Ferrero, the leader of Rifondazione Comunista, to give his backing to Appendino3 would have had some impact on voters critical of Fassino from a more radically leftwing position. It is no coincidence that the highest M5S votes in Turin came from the most working class quarters - the traditional strongholds of the old Partito Comunista Italiano, Borgo Vittoria and Barriera di Milano,4 where M5S got 64.8% and 62.8% respectively. This was a reversal of the outcome of the 2011 contest, since on that occasion Piero Fassino of the PD had scored 58% in Borgo Vittoria and 55.8% in Barriera di Milano in a run-off contest against a Popolo della Libertà candidate.5 There is a lot of working class discontent, particularly about housing issues, in these areas, and it is linked to a strong feeling that the PD has turned its back on the working class.
It is also worth pointing out that, whilst Rome appeared a chaotic and badly run city during the successive mayoralties of the neo-fascist Gianni Alemanno and the PD maverick, Ignazio Marino, Fassino’s municipal administration in Turin was - in bourgeois terms at least- an efficient one. Appendino emphasised in her victory speech the necessity of “rebuilding trust between citizens and their administration”. However, her statement that “Everyone from Turin must feel that city hall is like their home; the door will always be open” seems a little extravagant - particularly given M5S’s lack of any orientation towards the working class, the group most likely to feel marginalised by the PD’s turn to neoliberalism. Appendino, a multilingual businesswoman, has absolutely no roots in the labour movement. In any event, as I have emphasised, the M5S administrations in Livorno and Parma - the only really sizeable cities they had previously controlled - leave a lot to be desired.6
Although in Naples, the largest southern Italian city, the PD was humiliatingly eliminated in the first round, it did manage to make the second round in the two other major cities, Milan and Bologna. Here it was up against the traditional centre-right, Forza Italia and the Lega Nord, and did rather better.
In the Bolognese run-off, despite Virginio Merola’s rather poor first-round score of 39.5%, he beat the Lega Nord’s Lucia Borgonzini by a respectable 54.6% to 45.4%. In Milan - a much less solidly leftwing city that had generally been run by the right in the period between 1993 and 2011 - the PD’s Giuseppe Sala beat Forza Italia’s Stefano Parisi by 51.7% to 48.3%. In Naples the independent left candidate, Luigi De Magistris, who had knocked out the PD’s Valeria Valente in the first round, defeated his Forza Italia opponent, Gianni Lettieri, by 66.8% to 33.2% - almost as impressive a result as Raggi’s in Rome.
Raggi greeted her victory by claiming: “A new era is beginning with us. We’ll work to bring back legality and transparency to the city’s institutions.” This is hypocritical, to say the least. Firstly, there were the gross omissions in her heavily doctored CV, blotting out her long-term connection with the legal practice of the notoriously corrupt convicted judge-briber and former defence minister in Berlusconi’s first government, Cesare Previti. Secondly, there is her role as a leading officer in a company directly linked to a hard-line neo-fascist associated with the Mafia Capitale scandal.7
However, a further lack of transparency - and, according to some people’s assessment, an instance of outright illegality - emerged in the last few days of her mayoral campaign. Despite her claim that since she was elected as a city councillor she has had no other source of income,8 it has become clear that she had a paid consultancy in both 2012 and 2014, cumulatively worth €13,000. This centred on debt-collecting for the health authority of Civitavecchia, a municipality controlled by M5S since June 2014 - something which she only belatedly declared (in what seems to be a panic about the consequences of being found out) to the relevant authorities in the immediate aftermath of Ignazio Marino’s resignation as Roman mayor over an expenses scandal in 2015.9
In view of her predictable attempt to suggest this was a smear by the PD,10 it is worth pointing out that it was brought to public attention by the journalist, Marco Lillo of Il Fatto Quotidiano. This anti-establishment daily is hostile to both the PD and Berlusconi, and is a newspaper that many consider broadly sympathetic to M5S. Given that the job she was supposed to carry out was to recover no less than €860,000 in debts to the health authority, it is very hard to believe the matter just slipped her mind.
The ageing misogynistic, homophobic and racist comedian, Beppe Grillo11 - along with Davide Casaleggio, the son of Grillo’s original internet guru, Gianroberto Casaleggio - had adopted a cunning ploy. They decided to pick two young women to be their glove puppets as mayors of major cities and this has paid off handsomely in terms of publicity in the more liberal sections of the international bourgeois press. Rosie Scammell’s major article in The Guardian12is but one illustration - even the London Evening Standard, not a paper noted for its extensive or regular Italian coverage, published a similar article on June 20.
Of course, this duo do not remotely resemble the recently elected leftwing female mayors of Madrid and Barcelona, as some parts of the bourgeois media in Italy and abroad have misleadingly claimed. Their election does not serve the interests of the working class, female or male, any more than the election of Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel did. Whilst they have risen to office on the back of Torinese working class votes and Roman lumpenproletarian votes from poorer districts, which have in the past often turned to the neo-fascists, they will do nothing for workers or the poor.
It was bad enough to see the Livornese radical left cartel that included Rifondazione Comunista urging a second-round vote for M5S mayoral candidate Filippo Nogarin, allowing the city where the Partito Comunista Italiano was founded to fall under the control of M5S. But it is even more disgraceful that Rifondazione’s national leader has adapted to understandable working class discontent in Turin to hand the city where Gramsci and L’Ordine Nuovo led the factory occupations of 1920, and where even Enrico Berlinguer came to support the 35-day strike at Fiat in autumn 1980, to a representative of the upper bourgeoisie.
As I have repeatedly argued, M5S is not remotely leftwing. The new Turin mayor, Chiara Appendino, willingly accepted the endorsement of Lega leader Matteo Salvini and does not even find the violent racist Lega MEP, Mario Borghezio, offensive. Even Nigel Farage was embarrassed by him in the days when the Lega, not M5S, were Ukip’s partners in Strasbourg.
1. I discussed the crisis of the traditional centre-right in ‘Divisions continue to multiply’ (Weekly Worker June 2 2016).
2. ‘M5S on course to take Rome’ Weekly Worker June 9 2016.
3. See ‘M5S is not a leftwing party’ Weekly Worker June 16 2016.
4. Working class radicalism, both socialist and anarchist, in these districts goes right back to the period immediately before World War I. Barriera di Milano was at the centre of the Torinese insurrection of August 1917 - the nearest continental western European parallel to the Easter Rising in Dublin the previous year. See Carl Levy’s Gramsci and the anarchists (Oxford 1999), particularly pp89-94.
5. A change in ward boundaries makes a comparison with the 2011 result in Mirafiori Sud - the area near the biggest surviving Fiat car plant, where Fassino got an impressive 61.8% on the earlier occasion - impossible.
6. See ‘Scandal hits M5S’ Weekly Worker May 19 2016.
7. These breaches of any code of transparency, and possibly of the law itself, are explained in more detail in ‘M5S is not a leftwing party’ Weekly Worker June 16 2016.
8. She went so far as to tick the ‘no’ box on a Roman council form that asked this specific question in both 2013 and 2014.
9. See my ‘Scandals in the capital’ (Weekly Worker November 5 2015) for more details.
10. In a dishonest and obfuscatory comment worthy of her fan and political ally, Nigel Farage, whose Ukip delegation is notorious for expense scams in the European parliament, she has said: “It’s just muck-raking. I have already clarified that I have declared everything and it’s all in line with the rules.”
11. I have repeatedly drawn attention to Grillo’s overt racism, particularly in my article, ‘M5S racism exposed’ Weekly Worker (October 24 2013). Grillo has always opposed granting citizenship to children of immigrants brought up in Italy and once remarked: “How many illegals are we able to receive if one Italian in eight does not have money to eat?” It is no accident that he chose to ally M5S with Farage’s Ukip as soon as the Movimento gained seats in Strasbourg.
12. ‘Rome and Turin sweep women to power on a tide of discontent with mainstream’ The Guardian June 21.