Beppe Grillo: top-down

Grillo and M5S humiliated

Toby Abse examines the first round of the local elections and the return to the main parties

The most notable feature of the June 11 first round of the local elections was the most comprehensive electoral defeat that Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement - M5S) had suffered since its parliamentary breakthrough in February 2013.

Even allowing for the fact that M5S has never performed as well in municipal elections as in national, regional or European polls,1 it was a disaster for the Grillini. According to the political scientists of the Istituto Cattaneo, the percentage obtained by M5S in this year’s local elections was 10.4% - a massive drop from the 18.1% it scored in the local elections of 2016. In only one out of the 25 provincial capitals did M5S make it into the second, run-off, ballot to be held on June 25. Whilst in three others (Palermo, Cuneo and Frosinone) an outright winner emerged in the first round,2 elsewhere the second round will be contested by the centre-left and centre-right (or in a few cases between one of the main traditional blocs and a local civic list). M5S has only got into the run-off in nine of the 142 municipalities with more than 15,000 inhabitants.

M5S’s performance in Grillo’s home city of Genoa was particularly humiliating in the light of its internationally renowned triumphs in local elections last year in Rome and Turin - cities in which it had much shallower roots. M5S’s 18.4% in Genoa was hardly a huge improvement on the 14.1% gained in the same city in 2012, before its breakthrough into national prominence. Moreover, it was substantially below its Genovese scores in the general election of 2013 (32.2%), the European election of 2014 (28.1%), and the 2015 regional election (27.6%).

It is at least arguable that this fiasco was largely a product of the utterly undemocratic, top-down imposition of an M5S mayoral candidate - the operatic tenor, Luca Pirondini - who had lost the local M5S mayoral primary to the more committed local activist, Marika Cassimatis. Cassimatis was hated by Grillo’s notoriously authoritarian Ligurian lieutenant, Alice Salvatore, who regarded her as both too independent and too leftwing. Grillo, always suspicious of any independent thought within the increasingly cultist M5S, willingly followed Salvatore’s poor advice and staged a national online plebiscite of M5S members to obtain official endorsement for Pirondini - a completely absurd procedure for a local candidate’s election, given the total unfamiliarity with both candidates to the overwhelming majority of non-Genovese M5S members, and one totally at odds with M5S’s own traditional localism.

Whilst Cassimatis herself only obtained 1% of the vote when, after vain efforts to overturn the stitch-up, including recourse to the courts and to Grillo’s bête noire, the mainstream press, she left M5S and stood against Pirondini in the first round of the Genovese mayoral election, the negative publicity surrounding the episode had doubtless damaged the M5S brand in the eyes of the local electorate. As a result, floating voters were pushed back towards the two mainstream candidates.

Insult was added to injury for Grillo and the M5S leadership by the first-round result in Parma, the scene of M5S’s first municipal triumph five years earlier. The official M5S candidate scored a pathetic 3.5%, whilst Federico Pizzarotti, who had been elected M5S mayor in 2012, obtained an impressive 34.7% as a ‘civic’ candidate in opposition to his old party, as well as to the mainstream candidates. There is every likelihood that Pizzarotti will win the run-off against the centre-left candidate, Paolo Scarpa, since the supporters of the third-placed centre-right candidate, Laura Cavandoli (19.2%), are most probably going to cast their votes for an independent rather than a leftwinger - if they bother to participate in the second round at all.

Whilst Pizzarotti eventually broke with Grillo of his own accord after a prolonged suspension from M5S, officially motivated by a criminal investigation into his alleged ‘abuse of office’, ‘Captain Pizza’, as Grillo sarcastically renamed him, was in reality driven out of M5S for displaying too much independence.3 This typical short-sighted authoritarianism on Grillo’s part meant that M5S has lost somebody whom it could in other circumstances have presented as its longest-serving, most competent and most popular mayor. In the event, the bulk of Parma’s M5S voters, like most of its city councillors elected in 2012, sided with the local dissident, not Grillo’s uninspiring lackey, whose electoral campaign had little point other than a vain attempt to deprive Pizzarotti of the votes needed to enter the run-off.

Race card

Whilst local factors clearly played a role in M5S’s setbacks in both Genoa and Parma, its national stance during the last few weeks of the local election campaign probably had some negative effect too. The abortive attempt at a consensual electoral reform law, involving a temporary alliance between Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico (PD), Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and M5S itself, may well have undermined the ‘anti-system’ credentials of M5S. The impression given to the general public that the four biggest parties in parliament had united in an unprincipled lash-up to devise an electoral law in their own interests, and to deliberately exclude all smaller groups (whether centrist, neo-fascist or radical left) via a 5% minimum threshold was hardly edifying.

Given the massive publicity about the electoral law during the municipal election campaign, it is probably no coincidence that the turnout was only 60.1%, compared with 66.8% in the same localities back in 2012. Whilst this sordid episode has revived Berlusconi’s political fortunes - a matter to which I will return later in this article - it may well have weakened Grillo’s hand, both in relation to voters looking for a vehicle to express their discontent, and in relation to the ‘orthodox’ wing of M5S represented by Roberta Lombardi and Paola Taverna. The ‘orthodox’ have added the abortive electoral reform to their list of grievances against the ‘pragmatist’ wing, officially led by M5S’s current candidate premier, Luigi Di Maio, but in practice sponsored by Davide Casaleggio and Grillo himself. It ought to be stressed that the ‘orthodox’, unlike the now departed erstwhile M5S dissidents mentioned above - Cassimatis, Pucci, Pizzarotti - cannot be seen as left critics of Grillo.

Predictably, Grillo has sought to quell internal dissent and revive M5S’s electoral fortunes by yet again playing the race card against both migrants and gypsies. This has not been confined to Grillo’s habitual racist rants on the sacred blog - “those who declare they have no income and go around in luxury cars should be kicked out”, as should “those who beg on the Metro accompanied by children”, apart from the inevitable demand for the closure of the “Rom camps”.4 Virginia Raggi, the M5S mayor of Rome - whose links with the corrupt entourage of the former neo-fascist mayor, Gianni Alemanno, have become so obvious over the last year - has written an official letter to the prefect of Rome, demanding that no more refugees be sent to the capital. Luigi Di Maio has said:

I fully endorse Raggi’s letter. Our country is a pressure cooker. We cannot think of dealing with this phenomenon within our borders. Either Europe will wake up and start to redistribute all these people through quotas for other countries, or the lid will come off here.

Back into the game

If M5S is the clear loser in the first round of these local elections, Renzi’s PD seems likely to lose out in many important run-off ballots to the centre-right alliance of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Salvini’s Lega Nord. Whilst it remains uncertain, to say the very least, as to whether Berlusconi and Salvini will present a united front at the general election due early next year,5 Forza Italia and the Lega have been able to unite around agreed mayoral candidates in almost every municipality for the current local elections - elections in which divisive issues like their respective stances on the European Union or their preferred candidate for premier are of no great concern.

Berlusconi’s negotiations with Renzi over the abortive Electoral Reform Law brought the 80-year-old tycoon back into the political game from which he seemed to have been sidelined after the election of Sergio Mattarella to the presidency. The widely believed and probably accurate rumours that the PD will form a Grand Coalition with Forza Italia in the event of an inconclusive general election have assisted Berlusconi’s de facto political rehabilitation, whilst further eroding Renzi’s reputation.

In the run-off ballots the Forza Italia-Lega front is favourite to win in 13 out of the 22 provincial capitals. The centre-left is only ahead in six, whilst in the other three civic lists are in the lead. Senator Federico Fornaro of the social democratic Movimento Democratici e Progressisti (MDP) has pointed out the extent to which the PD support has waned under Renzi’s neoliberal stewardship. Compared with 2012, “the balance of forces has been reversed”. On the previous occasion, the centre-left took Pistoia and La Spezia in the first round, and was ahead in 13 major cities in the run-up to the second round. The MDP parliamentarian emphasised the downward shift in four major cities in particular:

In 2012, we were close to 50% in Taranto, and today we register 17.9%; in La Spezia, we are down from 52.5% to 25.1%; in Lucca, the contraction is from 46.8% to 37%, with a centre-right grown to 35%; in Pistoia, a fall from 59% to 37%.6

The Istituto Cattaneo has emphasised that the centre-left has lost votes to abstentions in a variety of cities, whilst the centre-right has kept its ranks serried to a much greater extent. The odds are now against the centre-left in both of the main industrial (or former industrial), largely working class port cities of Liguria - Genoa and La Spezia. However much Renzi may now rejoice in Grillo’s disastrous showing, the PD seems very likely to lose in some of the left’s old strongholds later in the month.


1. M5S’s excessive reliance on the internet means it lacked solid roots in many communities. Its local ‘meet-ups’ were a poor substitute for proper party branches.

2. On the Italian mainland, a mayoral candidate needs to get over 50% to win in the first round. However, Sicily has a 40% threshold, so Leoluca Orlando was re-elected mayor of Palermo with a plurality of 46.2%.

3. It ought to be noted that the much more loyalist mayor of Livorno, Felipo Nogarin, was never suspended from M5S membership when placed under investigation on very similar grounds.

4. Grillo’s use of the politically correct ‘Rom’, rather than the traditional ‘zingari’ for ‘gypsy’ illustrates how irrelevant fashionable linguistic obsessions are to practical anti-racist solidarity, even if it may assist New Left Review editors in their obstinate denial of M5S’s now clearly institutional racism - a denial repeated in an otherwise useful and interesting NLR article on the December 4 referendum.

5. The four-party plan for an early general election in September or October seems to have collapsed along with the Electoral Reform Law.

6. Corriere della Sera June 13.