By Duncan McDonnell
“Paris is worth a mass”, replied my friend, citing Henry IV’s probably apocryphal comment on his conversion to Catholicism in order to break the religious impasse in sixteenth-century France.
She was explaining her decision, despite reservations, to support Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement (M5S) in Italy’s election two weeks ago. The point, she stressed, was that voting for the M5S was worth it in order to mark “a complete break with the mainstream parties”. Sending that message was the important thing.
Almost nine million Italians voted for the Five-Star Movement. More than anyone – pundits, mainstream politicians and probably even Grillo himself – expected.
To put it into context: we still talk about the performance of Silvio Berlusconi’s new party, Forza Italia, in the 1994 general election. Forza Italia got 21% of the vote that time. The M5S took 25.6% in 2013. It is the best new party result in a general election in Western Europe, excluding “repackaged” or merged parties, or the first rounds of democratic elections when all parties are new.
The M5S is now Italy’s largest party in terms of vote share. Only the fact that the two main parties were in centre-left and centre-right alliances prevented it claiming the majority seat bonus (awarded to the largest coalition) in the chamber.
This instead went to the centre-left which, although frittering away a seemingly unassailable lead during the campaign, still finished 0.3% ahead of Berlusconi’s centre-right.
But in the senate (which uses a different electoral system), there is a logjam since the centre-left lacks the numbers to govern. So the M5S now finds itself under pressure from many in Italy’s media and elites to strike an accord with the centre-left so a government can be formed.
For this, and many other reasons, the M5S is between a rock and a hard place. It is a victim, to some extent, of its own success.
First, it suddenly has to contend with 163 new MPs, not one of whom has served even a day on a town council. That’s a big ask of a movement which was only founded in late 2009 and eschews the normal structures of political parties. Imposing discipline both inside and outside parliament will be extremely difficult.
To take just one example: the M5S prohibits its representatives from speaking, unauthorised, to the media. Good luck with that when the new faces find themselves running a gauntlet of tempting microphones and cameras every day in Rome.
Second, the movement in its parliamentary votes will have to balance the diversity of ideologies among both its new representatives and its supporters. If you read the M5S programme and listen to Grillo’s speeches, you find something for everyone – from environmental protection, to universal unemployment benefit, to the ending of monopolies, to reform of the political system and the state. The Movement claims to be “beyond left and right”, but there are clear differences in this respect among its activists and voters.
In a survey conducted with the think-tank Demos of almost 2000 Grillo and M5S Facebook fans last August, we asked respondents to position themselves on a political spectrum ranging from 1 to 10, with 1 being furthest left and 10 furthest right.
The average score for respondents was 3.88, indicating they are generally left of centre. However, it is also clear both from our study and post-election analyses that the M5S is fishing among discontented citizens of right, left and centre. These range from former voters of the northern regionalist Lega Nord to ex-Berlusconi supporters in the South to left-wingers in the “red zones” of central Italy and elsewhere. Convincing all these to come on board in a campaign is one thing. Keeping them there while voting in parliament on the bread-and-butter issues that divide right and left is quite another.
All the above is exacerbated by the calls now for the M5S to support a centre-left administration in order to prevent the country undergoing a second general election or the installation of another technocratic executive (a solution which would extend the suspension of party government in place since November 2011).
However, this would be a bitter and damaging pill to swallow for a movement, whose principal unifying message to supporters and voters – like my friend – is its rejection of the mainstream political class in its entirety.
The irony of course is that, had the M5S not taken quite so many votes from those mainstream parties, it would now be focused solely on settling into a parliamentary opposition role and acclimatizing to institutional life. Instead, it is having to justify its refusal to help provide the country with a governing majority. Sudden and enormous success brings sudden and enormous challenges.
Or, to put it another way: sometimes, a little bit less really can be more.
Duncan McDonnell does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.