This weekend, Italians vote on the Senate elections. If the polls are accurate, Pier Luigi Bersani and his Democratic party will become the largest coalition group. But the real story might just be Beppe Grillo and his Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) which looks set to secure over 15 percent of the national vote, putting it into third place.
Grillo’s movement, which translates to the “Five Star Movement” in English, has enjoyed a rise in popularity perhaps unrivalled in post-War Western Europe: one year ago, he was polling at around five percent. This is despite none of its members having been interviewed in the Italian media during the campaign, and its most famous member, Grillo himself, refusing to stand.
What accounts for this rise? Last week, Demos released a new report based on a survey of almost 2,000 Facebook fans of Grillo and the M5S. It provides at least a partial answer.
First, Grillo has used social media more effectively than any other Italian politician. Over one million people have liked his Facebook page. He tweets regularly and has 880,000 followers. Grillo’s is by far the most widely read blog in Italy. Grillo uses his social media as a platform and amplifier for real world activism. Online and offline activities complement one another. Grillo has constantly encouraged his supporters to discuss—both on the internet and in physical locations—the issues he raises on the blog as they relate to local questions in their cities and towns. This has been done through the creation of Beppe Grillo meet-up groups which have formed the nucleus of the movement’s presence all over the country.
But Grillo’s approach to Italian politics itself most explains his meteoric rise. On many measures, Grillo’s supporters are unremarkable. They tend to male (around two-thirds) and over 30 (again, around two-thirds). Although they are slightly better educated than the average Italian, they are more likely to be unemployed. They are worried about jobs and the economy, but on the whole see immigration as a good thing. But Grillo’s core narrative—that Italian politics is corrupt, elitist, and closed—is striking a powerful chord. In 2009 he held a series of wildly popular rallies on what he called “Vafanculo day,” aimed at the Italian political class. M5S supporters are angry about the state of democracy in Italy and Europe: 83 percent stated that they were “not at all satisfied” with Italian democracy and only eight percent said they trusted Mario Monti’s technocratic government. Grillo’s supporters display rock-bottom levels of trust in political and commercial institutions: only three percent trust political parties, two percent trust parliament, two percent trust banks and financial institutions, and six percent trust big companies—lower, on every measure, than the Italian general public. The same is true of the Italian media, which Grillo regularly rails against. Only 11 percent trust the press (against 34 percent of Italians overall) and less than four percent trust TV (against 40 pecent of Italians). In stark contrast to this, 76 percent of Grillo Facebook fans trust the internet.
Many of the concerns of Grillo’s supporters are shared by people across Europe. Over the last decade, trust in the EU and national governments and parliaments has been on a downward trend across the continent. In 2002, 39 percent of Europeans trusted their own national government and 42 percent parliament while in 2012 only 28 do so. That, combined with falling party membership and voter turnout, suggests that the appeal of movements like M5S—who combine an anti-establishment rhetoric with smart ways of using modern media—could grow across Europe. The key question for Europe is whether movements like M5S offer a genuine way to re-engage voters with politics. Our previous research into right-wing populist parties has shown that much of the support for these parties is driven by a dislike and distrust of political elites. The M5S could be a model that allows citizens to challenge the way that politics is done without scapegoating parts of the population.