Five Star’s Identity at a Crossroads

30.08.19 Publication:

What is a populist political party, what is its purpose and how worried should we be? Those
questions have been buzzing around in the heads of political analysts ever since parties like
the Five Star Movement, Podemos in Spain, France’s Front National or the Swedish
Democrats started to rise in the polls in Europe during the past decade. The Italian answer
seemed to simplify itself during the gialloverde government over the past 18 months, for
Matteo Salvini told us it was all about immigrants and national sovereignty and Luigi di Maio
didn’t say much that could be understood. Now, with the new giallorosso government being
formed by Giuseppe Conte, we are going to have to look for answers, yet again.

Outside Italy, it was common to try to explain the gialloverde coalition to other
foreigners by saying it was as if Donald Trump had decided to form a government along with
Senator Bernie Sanders, the self-declared “socialist” Democratic presidential candidate, so
incongruous did this marriage look. There was some truth to that notion, but one might well
object that Mr Salvini and Mr di Maio turned out somewhat less disruptive than the Trump
parallel suggests, even if just as chaotic and narcissistic.

That is probably why international and domestic investors alike now seem so calm at
the thought of Five Star and Partito Democratico getting into bed together. Gialloverde
turned out to be mainly noise and little action, at least little of the sort of fiscal action that
could have destabilised the economy, so why should giallorosso be any worse? Yes, there
are tricky personalities involved, but to outsiders that is of little interest.

The PD, whether you like it or not, is a familiar animal with predictable and
manageable faults. So, of course, substituting a predictable, moderate, pro-European party
for the disruptive Salvini looks like an improvement to international observers, even those
who might quite like a traditional right-wing recipe of tax cuts and deregulation. The chance
of pointless confrontation with Brussels looks too high, and few believe with any confidence
that a right-wing coalition would really bring a coherent programme of liberalising reform. It
never happened under Silvio Berlusconi, at any rate, and Mr Salvini shows little real interest
in such a thing either.

So everything now comes back to the question of what the Five Star Movement is
really about and what is its purpose. Is it even useful to call it populist? Those are the issues
in everyone’s minds when they wonder whether this giallorosso marriage can last, given the
past enmity between the two. What has emerged in the past 15 months about Five Star is
neither very inspiring nor particularly concerning, except in so far as it may have wasted
precious time.

The Citizenship Income is not, in theory, very different from welfare-to-work systems
in Scandinavia, so although it has clearly represented a brazen bid for popularity by handing
out public money, this is not an extreme form of populism. A better criticism is that it is
ineffective and a less good use of scarce funds than alternative ideas – just like the more
retrograde Quota 100 pension law – but that’s another matter. Similar thoughts apply to
ideas now of a minimum wage: it may be a bad idea for a country like Italy with high
unemployment and a large black economy, but something that was promoted in the past by
Labour in Britain and the Social Democratic Party in Germany cannot be described as radical
nor really particularly populist.

Cutting the number of parliamentarians does have a populist, anti-caste flavour, but
since President Emmanuel Macron has just proposed to do the same in France, that can
hardly be considered outlandish either. It could even be a good thing. Five Star’s
environmentalist side is bang in line with European trends, too, although it is too often
fused with anti-capitalist and anti-modernity thinking, unlike with Germany’s Greens. But
then, in the past year, some senior Five Star figures have shown sovereigntist and
nationalist sympathies, such as over Alitalia or foreign museum directors, so we cannot be
sure this will be altogether gone in the next government.

The big difficulty is adding such ideas together and working out what they amount
to, which is another way of wondering whether Five Star’s politicians really belong together
in one party. They are united by an oppositional attitude more than by ideology. That is why
the ultimate conclusion must be this: those calm international investors may well be under-
rating the chance that this could all fall apart, quite soon, when the long-predicted
implosion of Five Star actually occurs. That’s the trouble with “movements”: they move.