A new Five Star Boom: the 2016 Italian municipal elections

June’s elections saw rising support for the ‘anti-establishment’ Five-Star Movement, which in the context of growing economic instability is an increasingly popular alternative to ‘mainstream politics’

ceccarini-bordignon-100The Italian municipal elections held on 19 June 2016 saw further success for the Five-Star Movement (M5S). The elections are significant as they shed light on the evolution of the party created by the ex-comedian Beppe Grillo less than seven years ago and that has become, in a short span of time, one of the key political forces in the Italian context. Looking at the results, two aspects are particularly significant.

The first point concerns M5S’ leadership. The organisation of the ‘anti-establishment’ party has long been considered as centred around its two co-founders (Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio – although the latter recently passed away). However, in the recent elections, the Direttorio 5 Stelle (a directorate comprising five key figures within the M5S which was set up in 2014) played a key role in developing a successful campaign without any major intervention from Grillo. Whilst the organisation and internal democracy of the M5S still revolve around the ex-comedian, the recent successful campaign is a signal of the growing importance of the Direttorio and of key figures, such as Luigi Di Maio (deputy president of the Deputies’ Chamber and quickly becoming the institutional point of reference for the party) who are gaining increasing consensus and authority inside the Movement.

The second key point is M5S growing electoral success. This was epitomised by the election of two young, female M5S mayors in the important cities of Rome and Turin, winning against the Democratic Party (PD; currently in government) in run-off ballots: Virginia Raggi triumphed in Rome, where multiple recent political, economic and judiciary scandals have occurred, and Chiara Appendino won in Turin, which was a much less expected victory. The post-election debate has thus focussed on the ability of the M5S, demonstrated by these results, to break through into the Italian ‘peripheries’. The party attracted support in the metropolitan peripheries, often hit by poverty and urban decline, as well as from the social peripheries, gaining consensus among the ‘losers’ from the global financial crisis, and among the so-called ‘lost generation’ of post-ideological thirty-year-olds’ who often have very limited perspectives in the job market. The appeal of the M5S also cuts right across Italian society, and reaches out to a varied socio-economic electoral base, which includes voters with a high level of education; however it is in metropolitan areas where the M5S’ success is most marked. After all, it is precisely in big cities such as Rome and Turin that the global economic and financial crisis has produced individual conditions of economic and social marginalisation – and this has played a key role in orienting the vote choices of those electorates towards the M5S.

It is always tricky to assess the result of national parties at local elections, especially considering the effect of specific local factors, and the presence of civic and personal lists. However, such analysis is easier to develop in the case of the M5S, especially because the party stands always alone, without making strategic alliances or entering coalitions – as is often the case in Italy – with other political forces, and uses a single, clear, and easily recognisable Five Star symbol.

The ‘first Five Star Boom’ took place in 2012 and since then the capacity of the M5S to field candidates at local elections has grown exponentially. Their support peaked in the 2013 general election (when they gained over 25% of the vote) and has since remained relatively stable. In the areas where they fielded candidates in June and in the European Parliament elections in 2014, their vote only marginally declined from 22.2% (2014) to 20.8% (2016). Yet, such ‘relative stability’ is largely due to the success of the party in (some of) the big cities. If we exclude the results of Rome and Turin, in the remaining 112 large municipalities that went to the polls in June the M5S’ support dropped from 21.1% to 13.6%: a rather remarkable decline.

However, a highly significant feature of the 2016 municipal election and a symbol of M5S’ success is their continued ability to perform particularly well in run-off ballots – a trend that has been maintained since 2012, when the party elected a mayor in Parma. In the 2015 local elections, the M5S reached the second-ballot contest in five municipalities (out of over 100), winning all of them by more than doubling their votes compared to the first round. In the 2016 local elections, the M5S reached the run-off vote in 20 municipalities and won in a remarkable 19 run-offs, with an average increase of over 70 per cent in their share of the vote between the first and second ballots. Thus the M5S is establishing itself as a very efficient second-ballot machine capable of gaining consensus from across the political spectrum – confirming its profile of ‘anti-establishment’ actor which, in the context of growing economic instability and social insecurity offers an increasingly popular alternative to ‘mainstream politics’.

This is an important point to note, especially given that the new electoral law for general elections (the so-called Italicum) draws on the method adopted for local elections since 1993, and introduces a second round run-off vote between the first two parties. The run-off results from the recent municipal elections are therefore a source of considerable concern for the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – to the point that, following June’s elections rumours about a further revision of the new electoral law with a shift from run-off contests between parties to between coalitions have started to spread. Such a change would challenge the ‘tri-polar’ model that emerged from the 2013 general election. Indeed, it would allow the reintroduction of a bi-polar system based on a classical model of competition between the centre-left (revolving around Renzi’s PD) and the centre-right (which is currently going through a phase of internal rifts). In this context, the post-ideological isolation of the M5S (as evidenced by the party’s refusal to enter into any coalitions) could put it in a disadvantaged position

It remains to be seen whether such reform of the new electoral rules will become a reality, and it is also unclear if such a strategy would actually work in containing the growing success of M5S. Since June opinion polls have showed a M5S honeymoon with the electorate; with a growth of over 5 per cent in their support since before the election the M5S has overtaken the PD. Their credentials as a ‘governing party’ have also grown: two-thirds of electors believe the party is capable of governing in the cities, such as Rome and Turin, where it won. Whilst only a minority (4 out of 10 electors) believe the party is ready to govern the country, popular perceptions here too seem to be changing as support for this position has grown by 10 per cent in recent months. Thus, the M5S is confirming its profile as an ‘opposition’ and ‘anti-establishment’ party, whose political storytelling finds its strengths in a harsh critique of the Euro and the austerity measures imposed by the EU, and implemented (and sustained) by the incumbent government.

Overall, the 2016 municipal elections seem to confirm a consolidation but also an increasing transformation of the M5S. The M5S is increasingly gaining an image as a national party, which competes across the country, but which gains its best results when (and where) local contests address national issues. That is when, beyond local issues, the party is able to appeal to the ‘ills of national politics’ and to the discontent and malaise of specific (yet wide) social and economic groups across the country, which have been aggravated by an economic crisis that has been lingering on for many years. In this way, the M5S is tapping into a consensus that cuts across Italian society. With a stagnant economy, and with concerns rising about the dire state of Italian banks, the potential for the M5S to continue to attract support is considerable. This could have a significant impact both for the established mainstream political parties and the Italian political system itself.