On July 1, 2014, the Italian comedian Giuseppe ‘Beppe’ Grillo spoke to European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. About a month earlier, 17 disciples of his populist, Euro-skeptic movement, known locally as M5S, had been elected to represent Italy in the E.U., and Grillo took the occasion to introduce himself.
“My presence here already shows a puzzling fact,” he began. “The shocking fact is that I am here. I’m a comedian.”
Grillo is a captivating orator. His hands chopped the air in symphony with his rising and falling voice. Speaking in Italian, he breathlessly complained about the complexity of the European system, about its fealty to banks, its reluctance to aid southern nations with the surge of refugees. “I don’t want to let my children live in this world,” he said, steadying himself on the arm of Nigel Farage, the driving force behind Brexit, seated to his right. “That’s why I’m here and why I changed my job and also changed my mental structure to come here and not make you laugh, not to make jokes. I am here to speak to you seriously.”
He always appears to be one irritation away from yelling. It’s clear why this man is now Italy’s most popular politician.
During the 1980s, Grillo’s stinging political satire upset the establishment to such an extent no one dared host him. He toiled in obscurity for almost 20 years until he came roaring back in 2005 with a hot malice against entrenched politics. With television appearances no longer an option, he crowdfunded full-page ads in Italian and international newspapers attacking parliamentarians and national leaders.
That audacious act catapulted him back into the spotlight. Time named him one of its European Heroes that year. Over a decade later, Grillo is all over TV. Except now his critique of political leaders isn’t limited to satirical programs. He’s the leader of an insurgent political movement that is also Italy’s most well-supported political party.
The 5 Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle) is a populist political movement with a complex set of positions. Whereas Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands have ideologies steeped in far-right populist rhetoric, the M5S is more of a paradox. It borrows from the right and the left, but is neither; nor is it a centrist party.
As I recently wrote for ThinkProgress, M5S positions on the environment might mirror those of a progressive American politician like Bernie Sanders. The five stars represent the movement’s five central tenets: the environment, public water, sustainable transportation, internet access and sustainable development.
These priorities often have them labelled as a progressive populist party — echoing descriptions of Sanders’ campaign for the American presidency. But there’s a side to the M5S that is harder to read. For some, it is ambiguous. Others would describe it as sinister.
“A number of their policies are vague or pander to both sides of the aisle,” Matteo Garavoglia, a nonresident fellow with the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, told Latterly. “It makes sense because politically they are neither right nor left, and they have support from the most diverse social groups and are also able to gain votes from traditional parties across the spectrum.”
For Grillo, the M5S was a second chance. His sharp commentary of Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, the Socialist Party leader, went too far for the premier’s taste, and the state broadcaster, RAI, banned him from its airwaves in 1986. A harsh sentence in those pre-internet days.
It wasn’t until 2005 that he would reemerge and set the stage for what would become a movement driven by his charisma and no-holds-barred critique of the traditional power brokers. Grillo crowdfunded two newspaper ads: one in the Italian daily La Repubblica, which called for the resignation of Italian Central Bank Governor Antonio Fazio, and one in the International Herald Tribune that demanded all parliamentarians with criminal records be barred from holding elected office.
The movement launched in 2009, led by Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio, a web strategist. Tired of corruption, tax evasion and a political system that struggles to enact any kind of progress, Grillo and Casaleggio captured the imagination of the populace — particularly young adults in a country where youth unemployment is at around 35 percent. They used the web to stoke disenchantment and distrust of an ineffectual establishment. The pair initially organized political meetings on Meetup.com and brought together like-minded activists. They then began fielding candidates for elections on anti-corruption platforms and advocated a reduction in parliamentarians’ salaries.
In 2012, they won mayoral races in three smaller towns, but the first major victory came in Parma, a provincial capital. Just a year later, the M5S was Italy’s most voted for party in Italy (not including votes coming from abroad) in local elections. They’ve since maintained around 30 percent of the nation’s support. In 2016, Virginia Raggi won the mayoral race in Rome, deposing the Democratic Party from a post it had held for 11 of the last 16 years.
Casaleggio died in 2016 from a stroke, and Grillo, now 68, has become the face of the movement. His blog, beppegrillo.it, is one of the 10 most read websites in the world, according to The Guardian, and he uses it to push his political agenda — sometimes even posting fake news stories peddled by Kremlin propaganda outlets.
Grillo is an outspoken proponent of direct democracy, but his words seem to contradict his actions. His authoritarian tendencies resemble many of the most dangerous figures of the European far right.
Disagreements with Grillo’s positions on issues have ended poorly for many in the movement. At least 37 members have either quit or been kicked out since the general elections in 2013. For instance, Senator Serenella Fucksia was accused of not repaying parliamentary stipends, but perhaps her gravest error was to vote against the movement 253 times, according to the Italian news wire ANSA. She was voted out of the party in 2015 via an online ballot on Grillo’s blog. The movement’s positions are actually just Grillo’s positions, and anyone who doesn’t like it is reeled in or jettisoned.
But getting a grip on Grillo’s policies can be a difficult task. The M5S promotes nonviolence and opposes foreign interventions. It has been outspoken against NATO’s intervention in Libya and opposes American involvement in Syria under any circumstances. It believes Italy should take a more centrist approach when it comes to balancing American and Russian relations — a stark contrast to the fraternity shared by former American President Barack Obama and Italy’s last prime minister, Matteo Renzi. They’ve also expressed a heavy dose of Euro-skepticism.
On issues related to immigration and migrants, Grillo’s comments are either menacing or ignorant, and it depends on your interpretation. He’s cited as using xenophobic dog whistles and regularly shifts away from issues that might be in support of people of color.
“The M5S is hard to finger,” said Camilla Hawthorne, a PhD candidate in geography at U.C. Berkeley who has written on racism in Italian society. This is true for most issues but especially pertinent on their policies related to immigrants, second-generation Italians and racism. “They’re either silent or opposed to [issues like] reform of citizenship, claiming it is a distraction from the needs of ‘real Italians.’”
In 2012, the Italian parliament was set to vote on changing the law on birthright citizenship. In Italy, citizenship is granted based on lineage as opposed to place of birth. A famous example was the case of Italian soccer player Mario Balotelli. Balotelli was born in Palermo and grew up in Brescia. He was adopted by a Jewish couple and speaks with a thick Brescian accent. His first professional club was Internazionale and he made appearances at 17 years old, leading to calls that he appear for the Italian national team. But because his parents were Ghanaians, he was still not a citizen. Balotelli had to wait until he was 18 to gain nationality.
When time came to vote on altering citizenship requirements to make it easier for people like Balotelli to gain nationality, Lega Nord, the hard-right nativist party, voted no. The M5S abstained. Their argument is that such issues are a distraction from the real issues that impact real Italians.
“Real Italians are a nebulous category of people,” Hawthorne said. Similar language has been used by right-wing politicians in other countries.
Immigration to Italy was sparse until a few decades ago. In the last 20 to 30 years, Italy has witnessed a rapid increase in immigration from around Europe as well as North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Romanians are the largest group of immigrants in Italy, though Moroccans, Egyptians, Nigerians and a number of other nationalities are well-represented.
Despite the increase in migrants and refugees, as well as second-generation Italians who are the children of immigrants, the Italian government’s response has been lacking. The state has failed to create programs to properly integrate foreigners or, more importantly, to help Italians accept the new face of their country.
“The seeds of challenges related to immigration go back 30 years,” said Garavoglia, of the Brookings Institution. “Italy is paying the price because integration policies have been somewhere between ineffective and inexistent. Far too little has been done.”
The recent increase in immigration, widely regarded by Italian media and politicians as the “migrant crisis,” has left a bitter taste for many across Italian society — even those who don’t consider themselves racist. It doesn’t help that the issue has been mishandled by successive governments from across the political spectrum.
The M5S has jumped on this popular sentiment and leveraged it to gain support from traditional or fringe right-wing movements. After the M5S performed poorly in local elections June 11, Raggi sent a letter to the Interior Minister asking for a moratorium on relocating more migrants to her city, calling it “risky.”
“[The M5S] are subtly anti-immigrant,” Lorenzo De Sio, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at LUISS University Rome, told Latterly. “They are prodding in a politically correct way against immigrants.”
The latest incident was a conspiracy theory brought up by a prosecutor in Sicily. The prosecutor claimed humanitarian NGOs are working with human traffickers to bring in migrants and refugees to Italy in an effort to further destabilize Europe. Experts say little to no proof exists to perpetuate this tall tale. Nonetheless, M5S members jumped on these claims.
“Every now and then Grillo releases a statement against immigration that is highly heated and very dangerous and approximate to a pure form of racism,” Marcello Maneri, a professor of sociology at Milan-Bicocca, told Latterly.
In 2015, Grillo associated immigrants with vermin and filth when he said Rome could soon be “swamped by rats, rubbish and illegal immigrants.” Shortly after London elected its first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, Grillo drew controversy for a blatantly Islamophobic statement. Grillo asked when Khan would blow up Westminster.
The interesting paradox here is that many M5S supporters likely disagree with Grillo’s positions on immigration and refugees, and it likely won’t impact the party’s success at the polls.
“A lot of people will not agree, but they won’t lose votes,” Maneri said. “Those people will vote for M5S because they are against corruption, and they are the new against the old political class. They don’t care about their position against immigrants.”
If anything, the M5S could gain new voters from the right who are also sick of the political establishment. The most powerful right-leaning party is Forza Italia, the party of former prime minister and owner of soccer club A.C. Milan, Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi’s myriad affairs and scandals, however, have left the party a shambles and ripe for the picking.
An election is set for 2018, and M5S is expected to have a strong performance, leading in many opinion polls. In 2013, M5S finished second, but Italy’s convoluted electoral system favors traditional parties and the movement ended up with only 109 out of 630 deputies in parliament. This time around they are expected to take more seats.
But to rule the government will be another task entirely. As other populists have quickly found out, riling up anger against problems ailing society is easier than solving them. In Rome, Raggi has run into troubles and criticism for failing to fulfill lofty campaign promises, including relocating migrants from North Africa and Ethiopia and solving a longstanding garbage crisis.
The M5S has also vowed not to form any alliances with establishment political parties. Part of its legitimacy comes from labelling itself as an outsider, uncorrupted movement. But Italy’s parliamentary system is complicated, and it’s impossible that the M5S will win enough seats to govern without forming a coalition. This will be a challenge for whichever leader succeeds Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni into power.
“Their strength now could be a weakness once they are in the government,” Garavoglia said. He foresees a few options, though none is ideal for the M5S.
The first would be to forge a coalition with the Democratic Party of Gentiloni and his predecessor (who is also forging a comeback for the premiership) Renzi. This is the “most unlikely,” Garavoglia said, due to the high level of animosity between M5S and the Democrats. The second choice would be to partner with Forza Italia. The problems here would stem from sparse shared ideology or policy. Forza Italia also struggles to pull seats.
Lastly, it could join up with Lega Nord. This union would be reminiscent of the few Sanders supporters who switched their allegiance to Trump. But the only agreement between the two groups would be their rejection of the establishment and their interpretation of “real Italians.” Furthermore, support for Lega Nord is minimal, and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to bring any significant number of votes to impact legislation.
It might be odd to expect the seemingly progressive M5S to align with a right-wing party like Lega Nord, but it wouldn’t be the first time. M5S members of European Parliament are in a block of parties to which the U.K. Independence Party is also a member. UKIP was the driving force behind Brexit, and its former party leader — turned Trump campaign adviser and Fox News contributor — Nigel Farage has received praise from Grillo in the past. Grillo also backed Trump in the U.S. elections last year.
“All coalition possibilities will be uncomfortable,” Garavoglia said.
Whoever they align with, if anyone, experts believe support for the M5S is not necessarily binding beyond the upcoming election. Other parties have lost votes because of distrust and disenfranchisement. The populace is tired of corruption, tax evasion, clientelism and a lack of career opportunities for the youth.
Italians feel they’ve tried everyone else and nothing has worked out the way they want, Garavoglia said. Now, it’s the M5S’ turn to try. It could certainly send a shockwave to Italy’s traditional parties and the European Union’s establishment. It could also be a dangerous prospect for people of color and the integrity of the Eurozone. The populist wave may have failed to uproot France, Austria and the Netherlands, but the threat it poses to Europe isn’t over yet.
Originally published in Latterly Magazine (cover story).