ROME — The Five Star Movement, founded by the stand-up comic Beppe Grillo, did well in the election of a new governor of Sicily on Nov. 5. It scored the largest share — 27 percent — of votes for any single party, and its candidate, Giancarlo Cancelleri, reached 35 percent and ran a close second to the winner, Nello Musumeci, the candidate of a center-right coalition of parties.
This could well be the dress rehearsal for the general election next spring. The “grillini,” as Mr. Grillo’s followers are called, have a chance to topple the ruling Democratic Party, headed by Matteo Renzi, and the center-right coalition brought together by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s irrepressible 81-year-old former prime minister. But the Five Star Movement refuses to form any alliances, making it unlikely to form a government and run the country.
Unlikely, but not impossible. The leader of the right-wing Northern League, Matteo Salvini, said last week, “I may give Beppe Grillo a call on election night if there are no clear winners” in the national elections. The founder of Five Star quipped back in his blog: “They’re stalkers. We don’t want to have anything to do with them.” But he’s known for changing his mind.
That’s the kind of scenario that the European Union and the markets fear: two anti-establishment movements joining forces. The league and Five Star both dislike immigration, the European Union and the euro; both praise Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. No one can predict what a Five Star-Northern League government would do, nor how long it might last.
Long enough to scare many people out of their wits, though. “Populist” is Europe’s word du jour. “I’m so proud of being a populist!” Mr. Grillo recently said — in English — to a female BBC journalist (whom he then asked if he could kiss).Continue reading the main story
But the term is misleading. Five Star is basically a protest movement: Its members rant against the establishment, but are better at complaining than doing anything. They benefit from the anger of a suffering lower-middle class, Italy’s “piccola borghesia.” Salaries haven’t risen in a decade, successive waves of immigration from Africa are creating insecurity, and youth unemployment is at a record high. While overall unemployment is high, it is stable at 11 percent in northern and central Italy, where the economy is picking up. But it’s rampant in the much poorer south; in Sicily it’s 22 percent.
So who exactly are the Five Star supporters? Some foreign observers see the party as genuine reformers; others as harmless buffoons. They are neither. They’re the voice of Italy’s discontent, as Donald Trump’s voters were America’s. We heard from his supporters in 2016; we may hear these voters — even louder — this spring. The Five Star and the League may not know where they are going, but they’re going there fast, dragging half of Italy with them. The polls say Mr. Grillo’s movement is attracting around 30 percent of voters nationally, and Mr. Salvini’s league more than 15 percent.
The Northern League is somewhat easier to pin down than Five Star. It was founded in the 1980s by Umberto Bossi, a university dropout who was considered a loose cannon. Then, in 1992 and 1993, corruption scandals brought down the traditional parties. Mr. Berlusconi, seeing his political mentors crumble, stepped in, formed his own party (Forza Italia) and enrolled the Northern League as his junior partner. Together they won the election in 1994.
Since then, the Northern League has been in and out of government, and has gone on and off the idea of seceding from Italy. It has enjoyed the perks of power and a taste of the political dolce vita in Rome, a city the league members professed to despise. But it did better in the regions. Lombardy and Veneto — Italy’s economic powerhouses — prospered under its stewardship or survived it, depending on whom you ask. This year, it decided that secession is out of fashion again. Mr. Salvini dropped the “Northern” from its campaign in Sicily and made clear that he was no longer accusing the southern Italians for the country’s problems; his supporters now have African migrants to blame instead.
The Five Star Movement is quite different — a political construction unlike anything else in Europe. It has a rightist facade, over a leftist basement, under an anarchic roof. Its activists mistrust government, immigration, large corporations and, above all, science. Their belief that vaccinations are dangerous for children created havoc in Italian schools, forcing the government to intervene. Their core values are less government — with online referendums for everything, alongside conspiracy theories. And they respond aggressively on social media to anyone who dares to dissent. Journalists are singled out for hate messages.
The internet is Five Star’s terrain of choice. But this passion developed in a bizarre pattern. In the 1990s Mr. Grillo started touring Italy with sold-out one-man shows. Angry and funny, with a distinctive accent, scruffy beard and razor-sharp tongue, he had a way with audiences. He abhorred computers and the new media, and smashed P.C.s onstage with a hammer. Then came the internet, and with it a damascene conversion. He saw the web’s potential and started blogging furiously until the blog became the movement.
He did it with the help of a web wizard, Gianroberto Casaleggio, a spin doctor and architect of what the movement calls “absolute democracy.” Recently, without consulting the party’s members, Mr. Grillo enrolled Mr. Casaleggio’s son Davide as his de facto deputy and put the leadership of the movement to an online vote on Five Star’s interactive platform, titled Rousseau. Only 37,000 people voted, and the winner was 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio with 31,000 votes. Two other potential rivals, Alessandro Di Battista and Roberto Fico, had refused to enter the contest.
Even though he never completed his studies and has never held down a proper job, Mr. Di Maio will be the party’s candidate in March for prime minister. Five Star’s supporters clearly like him, but the rest of Italy is puzzled. He’s completely inexperienced. When given a chance to run things, “grillini” have often proved incompetent. Under Mayor Virginia Raggi, for example, Rome is going down the drain.
There really is nothing quite like these political forces in Europe. True, they share some elements with other protest movements: the anti-Brussels rhetoric of Britain’s “Brexiteers”; some of the illiberal tendencies of the Dutch Freedom Party; the anti-establishment mood of France’s National Front. And as Marine Le Pen did, Mr. Grillo had warm words for Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin (who is a role model for the Northern League’s Mr. Salvini, too). Last January, Mr. Grillo said in an interview with a French newspaper: “International politics need strong statesmen like them. I consider them a blessing for mankind.”
This makes Five Star an ideal recipient for Russian help, now that national elections are approaching. And how does Russia help its friends? Through disinformation, mostly. It succeeded last year among Americans, after probably influencing Britain’s Brexit vote, and this year it tried in France and Germany. Why not test Italy in 2018?
Sanctions against Russia are unpopular with Italian exporters, and Mr. Putin has powerful friends here. (Mr. Berlusconi is one.) A year ago, the news site BuzzFeed reported that Tze Tze and other sites in the Five Star Movement network had cross-posted scores of fake stories, including claims that the United States was secretly funding traffickers bringing migrants from North Africa to Italy. Tze Tze, part of a network of news sites owned by the Casaleggio organization, is featured on Beppe Grillo’s blog. It often shares content from Sputnik, a Russian government outlet active in 30 languages.
On Nov. 3, on prime-time national television, I challenged Alessandro Di Battista, a Five Star spokesman and member of Parliament: “Do you promise, here and now, that your party will never allow foreign misinformation to poison the forthcoming Italian election?”
He promised solemnly that it won’t.
We’ll see.Continue reading the main story