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The fate of the Five Star Movement will be a sign for the future of populism across Europe

The perception has grown that the 5SM is a minority stakeholder in this government, a difficult position for an anti-establishment party that won the popular vote

Angelo Boccato
Saturday 09 March 2019 15:15 GMT
Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio blames immigration on French colonialism in Africa

As European elections approach, Italy’s populist Five Star Movement has been struggling to build on its early success. Punishing results in regional elections in Sardinia and Abruzzo, and the rise of party “rebels” against Luigi Di Maio’s leadership, have piled on the pressure. So has the 5SM totally lost its groove?

In coalition with far-right party Lega Nord, 5SM’s problems are shown up perhaps most clearly when it comes to the environment, a campaign issue that initially brought them success. Little surprise then that there has been a sense of rage and betrayal from activists fighting the construction of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline between Apulia and Azerbaijian following the government’s green light for the project.

As a result, 5SM’s clash with coalition partners over construction of a high speed railway from Turin to Lyon has become a crucial battleground to protect those damaged credentials.

At the very core of 5SM’s success, however, has been its anti-establishment and anti-corruption stance. This s is why the party baulked at joining a coalition back in 2013 and why the rise of this curious “yellow-green government” between the 5SM and the League was considered an unlikely outcome following the 2018 vote. 5SM also scored a big win with a package of legislative measures against corruption and aimed at improving the efficiency of the justice system.

However, the perception has grown that the 5SM is a minority stakeholder in this government, a difficult position for an anti-establishment party that effectively won the popular vote. That has rankled with many in the party itself. The 5SM won 32 per cent in 2018 against 17 per cent for the League, but the latter keeps on growing in the polls.

Paolo Gerbaudo, sociologist at King’s College, has analysed five political parties which are pioneers in digital democracy, including the 5SM, in his recent book The Digital Party. He has observed that they run the risk of establishing a form of “plebiscitarian democracy”, in which supporters simply vote as their leaders want them to.

5SM introduced a platform called Rousseau, where supporters can vote on important decisions and propose laws. On 18 February 5SM supporters were asked whether the movement’s MPs should support immunity from trial for deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, after he was accused of kidnapping migrants on the Diciotti Coast Guard ship. The 5SM members voted by 59 per cent to spare Salvini from trial.

The 5SM is also facing a difficult phase as populism pulls supporters towards each extreme.

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European populists remain on the rise, increasingly and evidently on the right, as evidenced by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, the Swedish Democrats, the League in Italy and many others. On the left we see the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in the UK, Jean-Luc Mèlenchon’s La France Insoumise, Podemos in Spain and others.

The 5SM has tried to be a broad church, housing left-wing politicians such as speaker of the deputies’ chamber, Roberto Fico, while deputy PM and party leader Luigi Di Maio pulls the movement to the right, especially on migration. This has not, however, changed the balance of power within the government; the perception of the League as majority stakeholder has only increased following the controversial vote on 5SM's digital democracy platform.

Is the current crisis the Five Star Movement’s swansong? Will the coalition government be its coffin? The outcome of the European elections in May will shine a harsh light on not only the future of the Five Star Movement, but also on whether there is any future at all in so-called post-ideological populism.

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