Since its inception in the mid-2000s, the Five Star Movement (M5S) has represented itself as a vehicle for alternative voices in Italian politics — and a departure from the corruption and complacency of mainstream parties. Unrefined and unconventional, M5S began as a quasi-protest movement that coalesced around comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo. His against-the-grain attitude and promises of “cleaning up parliament” resonated with many Italians’ deep frustration with the political establishment — attracting a constellation of fringe and outsider beliefs toward M5S.
After registering as a party in 2009, M5S initially upheld founding principles such as bottom-up leadership and direct democracy. Its candidates were drawn from grassroots networks and its policy guided by its members voting on an online platform named “Rousseau” — a nod to Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas of the social contract and ordinary people’s natural virtue.
But today, M5S is leading a coalition of major parties supporting the “Yes” camp in a vote which threatens to drastically reduce the breadth and diversity of Italy’s political landscape. If the “Yes” side wins the September 20–21 constitutional referendum, as expected, this will mean slashing over one-third of the seats from Italy’s national parliament.
Framed in a blend of austerity and anti-politics rhetoric, M5S markets this bid to reduce the number of representatives as a shake-up of the political status quo — able to both cut public spending and boost parliamentary efficiency. However, the reform proposes a mere drop in the total number of MPs and senators and contains no systemic reform regarding how the Italian legislature operates.
With fewer seats — or, as they are pejoratively termed, “poltroni” (“armchairs”) — up for election, each candidate will require a proportionally higher number of votes, thus crowding out representatives from minor parties. As such, with no guarantees of a more expedient parliament, the meager financial savings this may deliver to Italian taxpayers will be offset by a sharp decrease in their political representation.
In the lead-up to the vote, M5S has repeatedly cashed in on its image as a force disrupting Italian politics. But it is championing a reform that will only serve to tighten it and other major players’ grip on the legislature, by squeezing out dissenting minor parties. In so doing, the movement has laid bare both the superficiality of its anti-establishment position — and its willingness to collaborate with traditional parties at the expense of Italians’ right to be represented.
Italy has long been a bellwether for European politics. If successful, its September 2020 referendum may provide an encouraging road map for reactionary movements to erode democratic plurality and institutions through a combination of populism, demagoguery, and neoliberal austerity logic.
When You Wish Upon a Star
With the momentum of M5S’s rapid ascent to power in the 2010s now lost — and its popularity wavering — attention is now focused on how it intends to keep its position. M5S formed government with the right-wing Northern League (today known simply as the Lega) after three months of negotiations following the March 2018 general election, which produced a hung parliament. By way of compromise, the two parties decided on the independent Giuseppe Conte as premier and set about governing Italy that June. The deal, however, was to last a little over a year. Tensions quickly surfaced and came to a head on August 9, 2019 when Lega leader and then interior minister Matteo Salvini called a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Conte.
Salvini had seen his poll ratings rise thanks to his hard-line response to the European migration crisis. Branded an opportunist by the outgoing Conte, Salvini sat kissing rosary beads during the premier’s resignation, most likely praying that with the crisis he could force and then win snap elections. But Salvini’s gamble did not pay off and instead resulted in today’s uneasy four-way coalition with M5S, the Partito Democratico (PD), the center-left stalwart of Italian politics, as well as the smaller Liberi e Uguali (LeU, left-wing), and former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s neoliberal Italia Viva. Despite the change of political direction, Conte was reinstalled as prime minister.
This decision was endorsed by Grillo — and subsequently ratified by a 79.3 percent majority in a “Rousseau” vote. But the alliance had a hugely destabilizing effect within the movement. M5S maneuvered to extract important concessions from PD, including its support for the 2020 constitutional referendum, but nevertheless alienated many of its followers. Within a few months, the then M5S leader, Luigi Di Maio, was forced to resign in the wake of a steady exodus of twenty MS5 parliamentarians, who walked away from the party and in some cases directly joined their former Lega allies.
This is the context in which a process of normalization of the once fiercely unorthodox MS5 appears to be underway. It has recently reneged on two of its core party policies that applied to elected officials at municipal and local government levels. The first was the removal of a self-imposed limit of two terms in office for each representative, designed to avoid the stagnant presence of career politicians. The second was the abandonment of a blanket ban on forming alliances with the traditional political parties — once intended as a cordon sanitaire to preserve its purity from the conventional parties it seeks to replace.
The justifications for these latest moves were rather farcical. Di Maio explained that owing to their lack of experience, M5S candidates’ first term in local politics should not be counted and instead constitutes a “term 0” — allowing them to serve another two before capping out. With respect to local government alliances, M5S was less metaphysical: the rule was retrospectively interpreted by leadership to have been intended for “regional and national” levels only. In practice, even this has not been respected, as seen in its current alliance with the PD in national government.
M5S has traditionally performed well in local elections — removing these limitations will allow incumbents who would have otherwise been ineligible, like the mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, to run again. M5S will also have the freedom to form municipal coalitions with the likes of PD at local elections held on the same days as this month’s referendum.
The backflip on these policies, and M5S’s opportunistic national-level alliances with first the Lega and then the PD have brought a slump in its support — discrediting it in the eyes of both its left- and right-wing supporters. Although these changes were each approved by online “Rousseau” votes, M5S’s national poll rating popularity has slipped from 33 percent in 2018 to 16 percent today. For some, these policy reversals and M5S’s willingness to get into bed with both sides of politics have revealed a leadership that has been “seduced by the luxuries of the palace.”
The referendum, therefore, presents M5S with an opportunity to call back to its roots. It seeks to prove to its base that, despite its barefaced attempts to consolidate its position of power, the movement is yet to turn away from its anti-establishment philosophy.
The Constitutional Referendum
Constitutional referendums on the composition of Italy’s parliament are nothing new. In fact, in the last fourteen years, there have been two unsuccessful attempts: Silvio Berlusconi’s 2006 reform and another as recently as 2016, by Matteo Renzi. This is due to a defining and controversial feature of Italy’s democratic model: “perfect bicameralism.” In short, this means that the two houses of the Italian parliament, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, are vested with the exact same legislative powers and no law can be passed without securing a majority in both. This hurdle has resulted in the slow passing of legislation, especially when no party or coalition has a majority in the Chamber and Senate.
However, unlike in 2006 and 2016, in the vote on September 20–21 Italians will not be electing to change any of the structures or mechanics that underpin their parliament’s perfect bicameralism or the way it legislates. Instead, they will decide whether to reduce the total number of sitting parliamentarians by roughly 37 percent. If successful, the referendum would decrease the Chamber of Deputies’ total members from 630 to 400 and the Senate’s from 315 to 200, cutting 230 deputies and 115 senators, respectively.
So, if not to address the structural inefficacies built into the bicameral system, what is the referendum hoping to achieve? M5S and other major parties supporting the move maintain the cuts have two purposes. First, it will save the public money, and second, it will improve legislative efficiency. The figures touted by M5S are varied but are in the range of €100 million saved per year, typically framed as a €1 billion saving over ten years. However, many have pushed back on these calculations, suggesting that a gross saving of €80 million per year is more accurate. Moreover, when considering what parliamentarians contribute back to the state in taxes, this produces a net figure of €57 million. It is important to note that this net total is barely 0.007 percent of Italy’s annual public spending. Even as a gross total, an €80 million annual saving amounts to a paltry €1.35 euro per citizen — less than the price of an espresso in central Milan.
The rhetoric employed by M5S is in some respects reminiscent of the arguments made for Brexit. All the money that is to be taken out of the pockets of undeserving politicians would, it is claimed, instead go to the public. The campaign has been eager to articulate this in material terms: with €1 billion euro, M5S claims it could build 133 new schools, fit out 13,000 ambulances, or hire 25,000 nurses.
M5S also claims that the cuts will speed up the passing of laws. However, this promise is not founded on any basis of reality. The proposed changes to articles 56, 57, and 59 of the Italian constitution do not concern any rewiring of legislative procedure or operations. The need for a two-house majority will remain, and therefore any government with no clear monopoly on seats will still be required to slog out the usual battle between houses to pass legislation. Yet these concerns haven’t been meaningfully addressed by those in favor of the referendum. The “Yes” vote’s campaign website is primarily concerned with making unfounded assertions, including that a smaller number of parliamentarians will “make debates more transparent for citizens.” Even more ridiculous are claims by an M5S deputy who believes that the cuts will fight political corruption insofar that with “the greater number of parliamentarians, the greater number of people that could be corrupt.”
Putting aside whether the schools, ambulances, or any amount of efficiency would ever materialize, most worrying of all is the way by which this watering down of parliament is driven by justifications couched in the ideology and logic of neoliberal austerity economics. The parliament is treated like a production line, its worth wholly determined by its output. This worldview frames the role of democratic institutions not as to represent the political diversity of its constituents, but simply as to make laws. However, a successful parliament should be measured by the quality, not quantity, of its work. It is for this reason M5S’s attack on political representation is a serious concern for Italian democracy.
With the number of votes required for election being proportionately higher, minor parties will encounter yet another barrier to competing with their cashed-up opponents. Furthermore, a reduction in senators, who are elected on a regional basis, would mean a relatively large loss in representation for some parts of Italy. The small regions of Basilicata and Umbria would lose half of their senators.
For these reasons, it is unsurprising that minor parties, including most of those on the Left or representing regional interests, do not support the change. Conversely, the major parties, right-wing forces including the Lega, and some relatively less impacted regional outfits are all for “Yes.”
A New Model for Antidemocratic Movements
It’s not often that communists find themselves agreeing with Silvio Berlusconi — but both sides seemingly recognize that the referendum smacks of demagoguery. Rather than driving meaningful change in Italy’s parliament, it will serve only to entrench existing powers.
In theory, these narrowing outcomes should be at odds with M5S’s claimed founding principles. Instead, the referendum has become a bright spot for a party in crisis, as it allows M5S to have its cake and eat it, too. Not only will success for the M5S-backed “Yes” side make it increasingly difficult for future up-and-coming movements to take its spot, but it is able to dress it up as a victory against the mainstream as it kicks the ladder behind it.
Former PD leader and architect of the failed 2016 referendum, Matteo Renzi, has gone as far as to declare the whole affair a “promo” for MS5. Indeed, the theatrics around the referendum have been high, including a photoshoot of Luigi Di Maio symbolically tearing a banner of gaudy antique armchairs in front of the parliament. However, outside of Italy, the vote has received surprisingly little attention.
Crying that dangerous and reactionary forms of populism are on the rise in European countries is like flogging a dead horse. But the impressive danger in M5S’s present attack on democracy has been its ability to realize it while avoiding the spotlight that comes with the fearmongering of Hungary, Poland, or even Salvini’s Lega. M5S has done away with the need for some existential threat that supposedly necessitates the vote against representation. Instead, its public justifications read like Thatcherite calls for tax reform.
From Mussolini and the rise of fascism, to CIA interventions in the 1948 election, and more recently the Berlusconi years — the trailblazer for Donald Trump and Boris Johnson — Italy has a penchant for setting trends. If passed, the 2020 referendum may set a new one. Like its hero Rousseau, M5S is distinguished by its conflicting and contradictory principles. But for all his lofty ideas for raising and educating children, Rousseau abandoned his own to a life of poverty and distress. Subverting the diversity of representation in Italy’s national parliament for the sake of power, M5S leadership appears to have abandoned its, too.