Italy’s Anti-Austerity Election: The Comedian Takes the Stage

Beppe Grillo (photo by pasere, 2012, Flickr creative commons)

“It’s finished! Give up! You are surrounded!”

It was a cold and rainy Friday afternoon in Rome’s San Giovanni square, once renowned in the Italian labor movement as the inevitable destination of every demonstration. Beppe Grillo, the surprise of the February 24 Italian elections, was shouting in front of the enormous, cheering crowd that was listening to the last speech of his campaign. He threatened “old-style” politicians and asked them to surrender to the “tsunami” of his “new” politics. Three days later, Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the center-left coalition that had been leading the polls in the weeks before the election, would realize that Grillo, an ex-comedian, is no longer joking. The words proclaimed by this new bogeyman of Italian politics—“It’s finished! Give up! You are surrounded!”—proved prophetic. Grillo’s political creation, the Five Star Movement, is the first party in the lower house of parliament with 25.5 percent of the vote; Bersani’s Democratic Party received 25.4 percent, his coalition only 29.5 percent.

Grillo’s spectacular advance was not the only nightmare for the center-left leader after election night—there was also the unexpected, unbelievable resurrection of Silvio Berlusconi. After almost ten years in office marked by trials, huge protests, and sex scandals, the ex-prime minister and media tycoon, now seventy-seven, has managed once again to gain the confidence of his traditional supporters: small business people, shopkeepers, self-employed workers, tax evaders, TV-fed pensioners, and the most conservative layers of Italian society delivered him 21.6 percent of the vote, and his coalition came in with 29.2.

Coupled with Grillo’s rise, Berlusconi’s resurgence signals a stable right-wing hegemony in Italian politics and society. The Five Star Movement, while claiming to be “neither left nor right” and declaring the obsolescence of traditional political classifications, seems to lean toward a kind of right-wing populism, shrewdly combining “right-wing” and “left-wing” (“social”) rhetoric as the early fascist movement once did. Grillo advocates the “nationalization” of banks and some big companies (especially in the energy and transport sectors). He is in favor of a “basic income,” and he’s a champion of green energy, bike lanes, and public transportation for commuters. Most important, he’s a fierce opponent of the austerity policies implemented by Mario Monti’s “technocratic” government (Monti’s party received 8.3 percent of the vote, and his coalition barely broke double digits).

On the other hand, Grillo’s proposals show some distinctly cross-class, right-wing features. He’s against trade unions, which he regards as a parasitic clique obstructing the development of the country. He’s a critic of Italy’s “relaxed” immigration policies. and he opposes citizenship for second-generation immigrants. He’s against public funding for political parties (which, despite its problems, is intended to grant the right to political representation to the lower classes). And he’s a fierce opponent of the political class, which he regards as uniformly corrupt, irrespective of their ideas, programs, and social roots.

Thanks to its “communitarian” rhetoric, the Five Star Movement has partly inherited the social base and the militant force of the Northern League, the far-right, racist party that has been Berlusconi’s faithful ally for years. Grillo claims that his party is organized horizontally around the concept of “digital democracy” (the movement was launched and developed through the internet), but the truth is that it is a strictly hierarchical organization: the ex-comedian, along with his powerful adviser, the businessman and internet communication expert Gianroberto Casaleggio, dictate the political agenda, select candidates, and expel the undisciplined.


The Democratic Party, a very moderate organization that resulted from the merger of the Left Democrats (ex-Communists) and a group of ex-members of Christian Democracy, wasn’t the only left-wing party affected by the success of Grillo and Berlusconi: smaller left-wing parties such as Left Ecology and Freedom (which was running in coalition with the Democrats) and the Communist Refoundation Party (which decided instead to participate in a rather heterogeneous coalition called Civil Revolution) got negligible results and, in the case of the Communists, failed for the second time in recent years to enter parliament.

Grillo claims that his party is organized horizontally around the concept of “digital democracy,” but the truth is that it is a strictly hierarchical organization: the ex-comedian, along with his powerful adviser, the businessman and internet communication expert Gianroberto Casaleggio, dictate the political agenda, select candidates, and expel the undisciplined.

It thus seems that, contrary to what is happening in Spain, Portugal, and Greece, the surge of anti-austerity sentiment in the last few months in crisis-hit Southern Europe is leading in Italy to the strengthening of the Right. The dynamics of the rise of the Five Star Movement resemble those that threw Syriza, the Greek left-wing coalition, into the center of the political stage some months ago. Leaving aside their many differences in ideology, history, and organization, both parties witnessed spectacular growth through a message of bringing about change and defeating austerity.

Italian voters’ anger at austerity can also be seen, strange as it may seem, in the success of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom. The party lost a significant number of votes in comparison to the 2008 elections, when it polled 37.4 percent of the vote. However, the last five years were marked by Berlusconi’s judicial problems (including a trial where he stands accused of having sexual intercourse with an underage prostitute), his attempts to neutralize them by passing “ad personam” laws, and the worsening of the country’s economic outlook. In November 2011, when financial speculation started to take a severe toll on Italy’s increasing debt, President Giorgio Napolitano finally asked Berlusconi to step down and called Mario Monti, the ally of the banks, into office.

But politics often have nothing to do with rational choices and sometimes reward the shrewdest behavior. During the electoral campaign, Berlusconi succeeded in being perceived, together with Grillo, as the champion of anti-austerity, despite the fact that his policies in office were by no means Keynesian, and the fact that his party supported (together with the Democratic Party) Monti’s government for months at the end of 2012—before Berlusconi started acting as a victim of an EU- and German-led plot. Rediscovering his populist origins, he accused Monti and the German chancellor Angela Merkel of organizing a coup against his government for the benefit of the bankers. He harshly criticized the spending cuts that have hit the middle and working classes under Monti as unfair, which they are (pity that his party’s MPs voted for them, just as the Democrats did). Resorting to a characteristic coup de théâtre, he also promised not only to repeal but to refund a property tax (undoubtedly a very unfair one) introduced by Monti (again with the People of Freedom’s blessing). He sent letters to every single Italian family—another one of his perennial tricks—in which he presented the refund as imminent but conditional on his re-election.

The Democratic Party’s electoral campaign, by contrast, was characterized by a somewhat disillusioned approach. Bersani seemed much more worried about gaining the confidence of the “markets” than that of Italian voters. In the weeks leading up to the polls, the Democratic Party consistently portrayed itself as the force of “stability,” responsibility, and seriousness. It is not so surprising that this self-representation, in addition to its previous support for Monti, resulted in many voters seeing the party not as an alternative to but rather the continuance of austerity. Bersani’s lackluster speeches didn’t help, either.

How did the heirs of Antonio Gramsci reach this point? The very decision to found the Democratic Party in 2007 was nothing but the latest stage of the so-called “Historic Compromise,” the coalition agreement that the Italian Communist Party’s secretary general, Enrico Berlinguer, proposed to the ruling Christian Democracy party in the 1970s. Berlinguer’s ideas were in turn very dependent on Palmiro Togliatti’s notion of a “progressive democracy”— a parliamentary democracy open to gradual social change achieved through class compromise. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) fully and openly embraced social democracy. This drift in ideology has continued ever since, with different successors of the PCI gradually abandoning every reference whatsoever to social democracy and the labor movement. At present, the Democratic Party does not even belong to the European Socialist family—a conscious choice of the party’s leadership.

Just like the old PCI nomenklatura, Bersani and the other Democratic Party leaders are obsessed with the idea of “responsibility,” in an effort to appear fit to govern in the eyes of the Italian and international bourgeoisie. This partly explains why Bersani was far more reluctant than Berlusconi to criticize Monti’s government during the campaign. This also explains why he never attempted to look like a determined opponent of austerity. The Democrats are now in control of the lower house, even though their coalition surpassed the center-right by a very slim margin. The Senate, however, will have no clear majority, and with Grillo’s adamant refusal to form a coalition with either Berlusconi or Bersani, the specter of instability and new elections now loom. There is only one certain thing: the Five Star Movement is now a key player in Italian politics. Social change seems more distant than ever.


Marco Zerbino is a freelance journalist based in Rome. He is a regular contributor to MicroMega, a journal of political philosophy edited by Paolo Flores d’Arcais.