Italian Populism, Two Sides of the Same Coin

The upcoming Italian election features two populist leaders who became famous through the entertainment industry. The Five Star Movement, founded by actor and comedian Beppe Grillo, is poised to make a push in the upcoming Italian election.  The party is an alternative to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. He became a prominent figure in Italian politics by running on principles such as anti-corruption and elitism but has since contradicted them after spending time as Prime Minister.  The five Star movement now carries the message of anti-politics, anti-elites and anti-corruption that the voters want.  The comparisons that can be made about the groups are palpable, although FI and Silvio Berlusconi are now political professionals.

Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi are more similar than they want to believe, Berlusconi has changed but his political rise and populist origins are eerily familiar.  Both leaders had immense fame before entering into politics which helped them build an audience that could be converted into political followers.  Berlusconi got his start working on cruise ships telling jokes and singing and now owns Italy’s three largest private T.V. networks that he uses to spread his message.  Grillo, too, is a product of the entertainment industry – a comedian, satirist and impressionist who was a frequent face on Italian national T.V.  Both men also use video formats to communicate to their constituents, Berlusconi through his T.V. networks and Grillo through his YouTube channel.  The leaders held public spotlight before entering into politics making it easier for them to amass supporters.

Italy has a long history of embracing populist style leaders who used popular media to appeal to the common man.  Inoslav Besker characterizes the two leaders’ approach as ‘populism, anti-party attitudes, demonization of opponents and an approach to the public and to politics focused on the leader.  Silvio Berlusconi started as an anti-politician and has described the politicians in Italy as to have never ‘worked’ a day in their life.  Unlike them Berlusconi has worked for his status and is thus shows himself as a worthy leader.  Grillo also despises the political class and refers to politicians as ‘zombies’ and ‘corpses’.  He would have one believe that he is not a politician and that his FSM isn’t even a political party.  They also share the similar sentiment that the political system in Italy needs to be reformed.  Grillo proposes bans on candidates convicted of crimes and limiting terms in office.  Similarly, Berlusconi, positions himself as a business man who is not at all like the politicians and that proportional representation needs to be replaced with a majoritarian system with more emphasis on the role of the Prime Minister.

Despite these anti-political origins, something changed once Berlusconi took power.  He became the very elite that he campaigned against causing him and his coalition to lose the favour of the public.  Berlusconi used his time in office to create laws that protected his own business interests instead of promoting the small business entrepreneurship of which was his platform.   The once anti-political populist who emphasised how corrupt the politicians and elites were became the embodiment of what he once despised.  By embracing the throngs of political leadership, he contradicted his original message and alienated his followers.  He created a political vacuum that afforded the opportunity for a party to propose the same anti-political message except this time he is the politician.  The upcoming election provides the perfect backdrop for an inquisitive look into the state of Italian politics, with the Five Star Movement polling so high, do they offer something new or is it the similar story of using the populist message for personal gain.

The Five Star Movement winning 25% of the votes in the 2013 election showcases a wider issue in Italy, the public’s distrust of politicians causes them to elect anti-government populists.  A positive feedback loop is created when an anti-government party is elected, they become the government causing the need for more anti-politics parties.  The Five Star Movements success means that they will become serious politicians, contradicting their platform.  After winning the election with not much of a party structure, clear leadership roles have been created and the founder has stepped down being replaced by Luigi di Maio.  Beppe Grillo once said his party was not even a party, but one look at the Five Star Movement, you can see that is changing.

By: Riley Bowman

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