Beppe Grillo: going down

Italian elections: Grillo’s populism exposed

The Five Star Movement has suffered a sharp drop in support. Toby Abse reports on the first round of the local elections

The Italian local elections of May 26-27 represent a massive setback for Beppe Grillo and the Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement - M5S). Whilst there was a record level of abstention by Italian standards,1 with only 62.5% of the potential electorate voting, this did not - contrary to what was universally expected when the low turnout was known, but the votes were as yet uncounted - primarily impact on the Partito Democratico (PD), many of whose voters were far from pleased by the formation of the ‘grand coalition’ with Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL).

In none of the 16 provincial capitals in which polling took place this year did M5S mayoral candidates make it into the second, run-off ballot to be held on June 9-10.2 The centre-left - consisting of the ex-‘official communist’-dominated PD, the soft-left Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà (SEL) and a number of smaller formations - won five of these mayoralties by gaining over 50% of the vote on the first ballot, and in the 11 where a second round is required the centre-left candidate was in the lead in the first round, so it is reasonable to suppose that a centre-left candidate will be victorious in the majority of cases.

The collapse of the M5S vote since the February general election was a nationwide trend, with relatively little in the way of regional variations. In Rome, for example, M5S got 12.5% in the local elections, compared with 27.3% in the general election, and everywhere else the drop in support was just as dramatic or even more so.

Although M5S lacks the deep roots in specific localities that the PD (or rather its predecessors, particularly the Partito Comunista Italiano) built up over many years, by no means all of Grillo’s poor showing can be ascribed to the virtual nature of his internet-based movement, with its relatively small membership and lack of functioning territorial branches. At least some of the shift results from political rather than organisational or technical deficiencies, even if Grillo’s official line, defied by some M5S parliamentarians, of a boycott of all television stations, was probably an own goal, given that a large portion of older voters get their political information from television and not the internet. The behaviour of M5S in parliament over the last three months has clearly disappointed its own supporters, who imagined the party would bring about a rapid change in the Italian political climate.

Grillo had calculated that his intransigent approach to the PD would pay off, since it would strengthen the hand of those in the PD favouring a grand coalition, whose formation would enable him to present M5S as the only real enemy of a corrupt system. That would lead the virtuous Italian people into a frontal confrontation with the political class a whole, according to the classic populist scenario. However, many of those who had voted for M5S in February still regarded Berlusconi, and not the PD, as the main enemy and were, therefore, far from happy to see the defeat of the seemingly more open-minded Pierluigi Bersani with his apparent willingness to do a deal with M5S, or at any rate adopt some of its programme, by the more pro-Berlusconi wing of the PD and in effect blamed Grillo for precipitating the formation of the grand coalition and its natural concomitant: Berlusconi’s return to total centrality in Italian politics.

All of this should have been blindingly obvious to Grillo and his close associate and internet guru, Gianroberto Casaleggio - any rational appraisal of the feedback M5S had been getting for months, either directly from comments on Grillo’s blog or more generally in terms of what appeared on Facebook, Twitter and political websites, should have indicated that Grillo’s total unwillingness to compromise even tactically with the more open-minded elements of the PD was incomprehensible to M5S voters. Instead of which, the slightest criticism of Grillo and Casaleggio, whether by the more astute M5S parliamentarians or by ordinary citizens posting on Grillo’s blog, was dismissed as the work of trolls, infiltrators and traitors in the pay of the PD.

Whilst Grillo and Casaleggio should shoulder the greatest responsibility for the M5S debacle, the obsessive and widely reported discussions of the M5S parliamentarians over what portion of parliamentary salaries or expenses should be accepted, returned to the state or given to ‘good causes’, and in what circumstances receipts were required, has not impressed their own electorate. This is partly because there is some suspicion that M5S members elected to parliament want to get their snouts in the trough in the same way as the PD and PdL parliamentarians whom they had denounced and partly because at a time of falling real wages, rising prices, growing unemployment and numerous bankruptcies, they would regard these issues as secondary at best and irrelevant at worst.


Grillo’s reaction to his own setback has been counterproductive, to say the very least. His wounded narcissism has led him to lash out against the electorate rather than make any real self-criticisms. Whilst attacking the role of the media - a fairly standard response to a poor result amongst most politicians all over the world - is particularly illogical on the part of somebody who has spent the last few years pronouncing on the utter irrelevance of ‘obsolescent’ forms like television and newspapers in the face of the triumph of the internet, the attack on large sections of the Italian population is far less amusing.

According to Grillo, the population is divided into two main sociological camps: ‘L’Italia A’ and ‘L’Italia B’. The first is “composed of those who live from politics (500,000 people), those who have the security of a public-sector job (four million people) and pensioners (19 million people)”. The second is made up of “the self-employed, laid-off workers, precarious workers, small and medium enterprises, students”. Allegedly ‘Italy A’ can be written off as only interested in the “status quo”. Continuing his rant against ‘L’Italia A’, Grillo declares: “Voting for those who reassure them but in reality have destroyed the country, they are condemning it to a road with no way back” and concludes, sarcastically, addressing this section of the population: “I understand you - you have done well.”3

Despite the demagogic appeal to students, the unemployed and casualised workers, this is a fundamentally rightwing, anti-working class stance. It attacks those workers most likely to be unionised and retaining some measure of protection under what remains of the workers’ statute (after Elsa Fornero’s counter-reforms a year ago) and demonises the elderly, whose pensions have been repeatedly and severely reduced by successive Italian governments over the last 20 years of ‘reforms’ (even if they have not been reduced enough to satisfy foreign neoliberal ideologues like Bill Emmott or his German counterparts). Grillo’s attack is also likely to consolidate the tendency of public-sector workers and more class-conscious pensioners from a proletarian background to vote for the PD, in the absence of any viable electoral force to its left, rather to draw them towards M5S.

Grillo’s extremely personalised and hostile reaction to an interview that the octogenarian presidential candidate backed by M5S, Stefano Rodotà, gave to the Corriere della Sera,4 probably made things even worse. Rodotà had criticised the tactical errors of M5S, which he felt contributed to its poor local election result, and Grillo’s reaction was highlighted by several mainstream commentators. They drew attention to his rapid shift from idolising Rodotà as the ideal candidate for the presidency of the republic in April to dismissing him in May as an 80-year-old has-been who had been resuscitated by the internet. This was presented as an example of Grillo’s untrustworthiness as a serious political figure.

No left challenge

The PD may have emerged as the strongest force in the local elections, but it seems unlikely that it has actually gained any substantial portion of those voters who deserted M5S between February and May. Moreover, in Siena, which would have been regarded as a first-round certainty for the PCI and all its successor parties, the PD candidate only got 39.6% and will have to go to a second round run-off with the PdL. The poor PD showing resulted from a massive scandal leading to the resignation of many leading figures in a very long established, locally based bank, and the Sienese PD’s very close links to the bank clearly harmed their electoral prospects. Yet Grillo failed to make the headway he had anticipated in Siena.

In fact the third-placed candidate was not that of the M5S, but Laura Vigni, who gained 10.3% challenging the PD from the left with the backing of Rifondazione Comunista. The PRC itself only got 2.7% and the allied local list, Sinistra per Siena, picked up 2.8% - a slightly better outcome than that obtained by the communists elsewhere in this round of local elections.

In other words, the left is in no position to mount an electoral challenge. It is true that the metalworkers’ union, FIOM, managed to organise a very respectable demonstration of between 50,000 and 100,000 people against the austerity policies of the grand coalition in Rome on May 11. The event united SEL, Rifondazione, sections of M5S and a few prominent individual dissidents from the PD, along with trade union activists and pensioners’ organisations, and hopefully signalled the beginning of some sort of mass fightback. But the local election results gave no indication of opposition to the coalition finding any widespread electoral outlet other than M5S or abstention.



1. Participation rates in Italian local elections have been much higher than their British equivalents throughout the period since 1945. The original reasons for this were both good and bad: the presence of ideologically based mass political parties, on the one hand, and the extent of clientelism and corruption in local government, on the other. But the pattern persisted after the cold war conditions that gave rise to it altered in the early 1990s.

2. Since Italy’s introduction of directly elected mayors in 1993 municipal elections have been conducted according to rules somewhat reminiscent of French elections. Groupings whose mayoral candidates do not make it into the second round do, however, obtain representation on the council in accordance with their score on the first ballot, so on this occasion M5S did increase its nationwide total of councillors, albeit from a low starting figure.

3. Quoted in La Repubblica May 29. This ‘analysis’ first appeared on Grillo’s blog.

4. Corriere della Sera May 30. Rodotà stressed the importance of choosing good local candidates. He criticised over-reliance on the internet during the campaign and Grillo’s blaming of the voters after the result was known.