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Anti-establishment politics and the rise of Italy’s Five Star Movement

Jill and Alfonso discuss Italian politics

MP Alfonso Bonafede discuss Italy’s anti-establishment politics

This week, Nick Martino and his Grade 11 social and cultural anthropology students welcomed Alfonso Bonafede, a member of Italy’s Parliament, into their classroom to discuss the rise of populism and technology within Italian politics. During the conversation, Mr. Bonafede explained how political awareness is paramount in every society while indifference is deadly for democracy — arguably never truer than right now.

Alfonso Bonafede Is a member of the anti-establishment, political protest party Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement). The party was formed in 2009 by Beppe Grillo, a comedian and activist  best known for his biting political monologues, after he grew weary of Italy’s establishment politics and the perceived corruption at all levels of government. Today, the Five Star Movement (M5S)  embodies many of the same characteristics as the Arab Spring and Occupy Movement, most visible in its call for Italy’s 99% to take a stance against the traditional structures of representative democracy, and instead embrace populism by giving the decision-making responsibility back to the people.

During our week in Rome to study the political shift from Republic rule to rule by the Caesars, we had a chance to visit a session of Parliament. When my students saw an almost empty Parliamentary floor, they were struck by the dangers of a non-participatory democracy. -Nick Martino

Grassroots campaigns lead to political shakeups

It’s easy to see why Italy’s youth would be attracted to the Five Star Movement’s rhetoric: the Euro Crisis has left many of them wondering what happened to their future;  over the last ten years, youth unemployment in Italy has spiraled out of control and now hovers at a dismal forty percent. Worse, there is a general feeling that basic rights have been stripped and votes don’t count for anything. Politicians are openly doing business with the Mafia and police enforcement is minimal at best.

The M5S’s grassroot campaigns were instantly appealing to the disenfranchised, and Beppe Grillo’s blog has emerged as a lightning rod of criticism against Italy’s political and business elite. Unlike Italy’s other political parties, M5S were quick to embrace the internet, using it extensively to share party news, organize local meetups, and most importantly provide citizens with a way to participate in Italian politics. M5S rely extensively on online primaries  during elections, due to any Italian citizen having an internet connection also having a means to vote.

Jill poses with Five Star Movement Senator Paolo Taverna

Jill poses with Five Star Movement Senator Paolo Taverna

Mr. Grillo’s plan seems to be working: during the 2013 parliamentary election, the M5S won roughly 25% of the vote. When Alfonso was asked by one of our students  if he thought 25% could make a difference, he responded “Well.. I would say so. In 2009, we had only 1%!  As Confucius said, “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.””

Rise of the Five Star Movement

Beppo Grille speaks in front of a large audience in Florence

Beppe Grillo speaks to a large audience in Florence

One of the key differences between the M5S and Italy’s other political parties is the requirement that its candidates have no prior political experience, and this is what truly sets the party apart. Due to this, ordinary Italians -teachers, nurses, mothers, IT workers- began winning seats in local elections long held by the Partito Democratico (Democratic Party).

There is an earnestness to M5S’s novice politicians, a desire to do right by the people that bring them to office — to do away with the false promises trumpeted over and over again by those on the  center-left and center-right. At a time when Italy’s members of Parliament are among the highest paid in Europe, M5S electees are giving half of their salary back, over seventeen million Euros so far, as a sign that they are serious about change.

Alfonso Bonafede found himself on a similar trajectory to this. A civil lawyer by trade, Alfonso has made an impact on Italian politics by serving as an anti-establishment member of Parliament (MP)  for M5S.

Here’s a breakdown of Alfonso’s position in Parliament:

  • Italy’s Parliament is bicameral, with power being divided evenly between the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate of the Republic
  • During the 2013 elections, Alfonso was one of 630 deputies elected to the Chamber of Deputies
  • 91 of those 630 deputies belong to the Five Star Movement.
  • Alfonso is 1 of 38 MPs that represent the Tuscan constituency
  • The Five Star Movement hold 5 of the 38 Tuscany seats
  • There are 14 committees in the Italian Parliament. Each has a specialized scope of competence which it has legislative, investigative, policy setting, and control functions over
  • Alfonso serves as vice president on the justice committee

Since being elected to the Chamber of Deputies, Alfonso has become an outspoken champion for the rights of his voter base.  He listens to and addresses voters’ concerns, all while fighting for the adoption of the Movement’s  five “stars”:

  • Public water
  • Sustainable transport
  • Sustainable development
  • Right to internet access
  • Environmentalism

As Alfonso and the other M5S elects are finding out, however, being the voice of the masses means the spotlight is amplified and the margin for error is razor thin; M5S have loudly trumpeted change over the last three years, and when their elected officials fall short of their goals or simply can’t uphold a promise, the outrage is palpable. Fair or not (many Committee elects inherited less-than-desirable situations from their predecessors), this is the reality faced by a party committed to populism, and officials who do not live up to expectations can find themselves expelled from office.

Looming Elections

On June Fourth, Beppe, Alfonso, and the rest of M5S will have their eyes set on the mayoral results in all of Italy’s largest cities. Winning the mayoral race in Rome is a distinct possibility (Virginia Raggi, the M5S candidate, is currently leading), but it is yet to be seen if Romans are ready to entrust Italy’s capital to an anti-establishment candidate  just yet.

Whatever the result, this parable, written by Piero Calamandrei and shared with our students by Alfonso, seems more relevant to Italy’s future than ever before.

Two men board a ship—one man goes below deck to take a nap—the other goes to the crow’s nest to take a look around. After some time, a storm begins to grow on the horizon. The man in the crow’s nest begins to worry, while the one below continues to sleep. The storm gets closer and closer until it’s upon them. The man in the crow’s nest shouts down to a sailor, “What will become of us if the storm continues?”, the sailor replies “ If it continues like this for 30 minutes, the ship will sink and we’ll all die.” The man in the crow’s nest starts to panic and runs to reach his friend below. Shaking his friend awake, he begins to tell him, “ Do you feel the storm? If it continues like this for another 30 minutes, the ship will sink!” The man irritated from being wakened from his good dream, rolls over and tries to go back to sleep; he grouchily replies to his friend, “Why do I care?  It’s not my boat.”

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