22nd Jan 2022


Beppe Grillo - an Italian or European phenomenon?

  • Beppe Grillo in action (Photo: kbytesys)

Beppe Grillo's extraordinary success in the recent Italian elections tapped into anti-establishment feeling that is ripe for the plucking in other member states too, say analysts.

Grillo's 5-Star Movement, established by blog in autumn 2009, scooped 26 percent of the vote during last week's elections, effectively putting him in kingmaker position as government negotiations begin.

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It was a stunning political debut. And represented an earthquake for Italian politics, marred by corruption scandals, complacency and squabbling.

The 5-Star Movement has a lean programme with five themes: public water, transportation, development, internet connection and the environment. There is nothing on foreign policy. And nothing about the EU.

Grillo, a former comedian who built a following through out the 1980s with his political satire, is given to expansive rhetoric.

"The left and right will govern together on the ruins they've created, it will last a year at most, then our movement will change the world," he said after the election.

And already analysts are wondering whether it will change European politics or whether it is flash-in-the-pan, standing and falling with its shrewd and charismatic leader.

European politics

More broadly it has given rise to questions about whether Internet politics is the way of the future, and whether the Grillo way - communicating by blog, organising local forums for people to get together to discuss issues - is the campaign template to come.

"Apart from Barack Obama, I have never seen a politician with such an incredible following," says Jamie Bartlett, director of the UK-based Centre for Analysis of Social Media.

Grillo has around 1 million supporters on facebook, and the most widely-read blog in Italy.

The key factor for Grillo doing so well says Bartlett was that "his supporters went out and voted."

The 64-year old, who will not enter parliament himself because it would fall foul of his movement's own rules on not having a criminal conviction (he has one for manslaughter following a car accident), managed to get his online followers out on to the street to canvas, knock on doors and finally go to the ballot box.

"This is a salutatory lesson," says Bartlett, who has studied their profile.

Grillo's supporters are generally young, reasonably well-educated and about 20 percent of them are unemployed. Forty-six percent came from the left; 39 percent came from the right.

Their distinguishing feature is their deep mistrust of political parties and institutions, of mainstream media and the justice system.

But beyond this is where Grillo-ists differ from other populist parties such as the English Defence League or France's National Front whose main platform is anti-immigration.

For supporters of the five-star movement, the economy and unemployment is their main concern.

With levels of trust in institutions falling across Europe, Bartlett reckons a Grillo-ist movement could be replicated in other member states.

He points to similar levels of across-the-board mistrust in the UK, Greece and France. This is compounded by crisis economics, high joblessness and continued austerity measures.

"If you can combine that [mistrust] with a high level unemployment, frustration that politicians are not listening to you, with a very internet-savvy group, it wouldn't surprise me if we saw similar movements emerge over the next two to three years," he says.

Or in time for the next European election in 2014.

If social-media based political activism takes a hold across the EU, spurred by the perception that Brussels is imposing austerity measures, it could skew the traditional make-up of the EU assembly.

"We could see quite a parliament next year," says Heather Grabbe of the Open Society Institute in Brussels.

This likelihood is increased by the fact that voters tend to see their EU parliament ballot as having little domestic consequence - or as Grabbe puts - they feel they have a "free kick at the goal."

Here to stay?

With formal negotiations on forming a government in Italy yet to begin, the jury is still out on whether the 5- Star Movement is more than its leader.

Comparisons are being made with Germany's Pirate Party - also an upstart, Internet-based movement - which, lacking a strong leader, is riven by internecine fighting.

The 5-Star Movment's 163 MPs and senators-elect got together for the first time at the beginning of this week. Most of them had not heard of or met one another before, having been selected in online primaries. They are all considered spokespeople of the party. And Grillo is the grand amplifier of the voice of party members.

Grillo himself has denounced all traditional parties in Italy and has refused to deal with Italian media. His party is the only one that refuses state financing.

But he has also shown an iron streak. Italian media have widely reported on the fact that he expelled two local councillors last year who appeared on talk shows with politicians from other parties.

It remains unclear whether the 5-Star Movement can make the transition from arriviste movement to governing party.

"Is social media just a fancy new way communicating with your followers rather than representing a different way of doing politics?" asks Grabbe.

Meanwhile, another open question is whether Grillo is the type of politician to rest within the confines of Italy. A couple of years down the line, predicts Bartlett, Grillo will aim for a pan-European movement.

He is already telling other similar movements, such as the Spanish protest movement Indignados, where they are going wrong.

"The two [movements] were identical: get rid of the parties, put citizens in, limits of two terms, get the corrupt out of Parliament. But they were just in the piazza. We went into the piazza too, but we gathered 350,000 signatures," he told Time magazine.

"You guys stopped with piazzas, and then fought with police, with citizens like you. We’ve surpassed that. It’s not me coming to learn from you. You need to understand that with the Internet, you can do like us," he added.

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