Political earthquake in Europe: Italy’s Beppe Grillo and his 5 Star Movement

Concern rises within the European Union after the Italian parliamentary elections have plunged the peninsula –third largest economy of the Eurozone- into a political gridlock.

The spectacular breakthrough of the seditious “5 star” movement during Italian general elections has been one of the most commented political events in Europe over the past two weeks.

Within few hours following the proclamation of the final results, Beppe Grillo, founder and charismatic leader of the movement which has received more than 25 % of the total votes, has emerged as an essential political leader whose strategies will be crucial not only for the reorganization of the political system in the peninsula but also for the future of the regional supranational institution, the European Union, since Italy is the third largest economy of the Eurozone.

Former stand-up comedian, active blogger and atypical politician, Beppe Grillo, has built his political notoriety through relentless diatribes against mainstream parties and politicians who have been governing Italy over the past few decades.

His political rivals and other commentators have systematically labelled him as ‘demagogue’, ‘populist’ and even a new ‘fascist’ whose ideas pose a threat to democracy. A British journalist went as far as to describe him as the “new Mussolini” that has skilfully exploited the popularity of the ‘Vaffanculo days’ – mass public gatherings during which he used to revile outspokenly  Italian mainstream politicians – to create the political arm that will lead eventually him to national success: the 5 star Movement .

If the multiplication of corruption cases and other major scandals involving prominent Italian politicians has contributed to the disaffection towards mainstream parties among the citizens of the peninsula, the electoral success of ‘anti-establishment’ political organizations such as the ‘5 star movement’ is not exceptional in the European context. Indeed, far from being an isolated case, the outcome of the Italian general elections reflects a structural transformation of politics within the European Union. Over the past 5 years, in the particular context of economic and social crisis, the most noticeable outcomes of local or national elections held within member states of the European Union has been the spectacular rise of political movements castigating traditional parties –deemed incompetent or corrupt. These reactionary movements present themselves as credible alternatives and limit the devastating consequences of the crisis while reconciling Europe’s citizens with its politics.

Despite non-negligible ideological differences and antagonisms about the best way to bring about political change, it is possible to identify common features in the political discourse of the so called anti-establishment parties. Indeed, the increasing popularity of such insurgent political organizations among their national constituencies can be interpreted as the expression of a double rejection  : the rejection of traditional political parties and politicians who have been unable to curb the effects of the economic and social crisis on one hand,  and the rejection of the austerity policies enforced onto the Italians and other Europeans by the ‘technocrats’ of the European Union assisted in their task by national governments eager to preserve the credibility  of their country for  financial activities. While they were originally aimed at implementing  the conditions of economic recovery by restoring the confidence of financial markets in the Eurozone -mainly through a drastic reduction of public expenditures-, the short term effects of the austerity policies have been a deep economic recession and a subsequent degradation of social conditions typical of an ailing economy. It is not surprising that in the countries where people have suffered from the austerity policies, voters are turning to political organizations who promise them absolute measures to end their sufferings even when this entails ‘radical’ decisions such as leaving the Eurozone –a leitmotiv of Beppe Grillo’s campaign- or even more radical – leaving the European Union itself.

In the meantime, the unexpected breakthrough of the 5-star movement has plunged the country into a political stalemate. Without any coalition having majority in both houses of the parliament, the country is now ungovernable. The centre left led by Pier Luigi Bersani  has obtained a majority in the Chamber of Deputies (lower house)  and  a coalition of right-wing parties led by Silvio Berlusconi has a majority in the Senate (upper house). Beppe Grillo has rejected all the proposals to form a coalition with the centre-left in order to govern a country . Mario Monti, a former consultant of Goldman Sachs whose government of technocrats backed by Brussels and Berlin has been implementing the austerity policies over the past 15 months appeared to be the greatest loser of the elections.

While Italy’s political instability threaten to weaken the economic stability of the entire Eurozone, the Italian vote resonates as a warning directed towards ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ and, indirectly, to Angela Merkel. The warning is that – the European citizens are not willing to undergo the unilateral decisions of the financial markets or the dictates  imposed by a German government exploiting its economic supremacy into a coercive political power.

Bouna Chames Eddine Mbaye

"Zeal without knowledge is fire without light." - Thomas Fuller, 17th century historian

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