Barnaby Martin

Italy’s own populist revolution may be about to begin

Italy's own populist revolution may be about to begin
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Golden boy, Luigi Di Maio, is the 30-year-old, slickly dressed leader of the Parliamentary Italian Five Star Movement (M5S), Italy’s insurgent political party that is polling ahead of the incumbent Democrats with a smorgasbord of National Socialist-style policies, plucked from the manifestos of the left and right. And just like everyone else in M5S, Di Maio doesn’t like journalists.  

This dislike of journalists is not merely the perfectly reasonable loathing that one develops towards the mainstream media (MSM) if one is a vegan, who doesn’t believe in vaccinations, but who does believe that airplane contrails are evidence of government-funded chemical spraying of the population (M5S member beliefs at one point or another). There is also another facet to M5S’s contempt for the mainstream media: M5S is pre-Trump living proof that the MSM doesn’t matter anymore. 

Beppe Grillo, the stand-up comic, blogger and failed actor from Genoa, is routinely cited as the founder of M5S but its real inventor was Gianroberto Casaleggio, an internet strategist from Milan who died in April this year.  It was Casaleggio who, in 2005, spotted the burgeoning popularity of Grillo’s humorous blog that in the early days covered topics ranging from the Byzantinely unfair tariff structure of Italian telecoms to water rights in Sicily. 

Casaleggio saw that Grillo was a people’s hero–in-waiting and he realised that with the help of social media he could grow Grillo’s loyal fan base into a giant political movement.  Casaleggio viewed the MSM as just another expression of the old pre-internet economic order: bookshops and banks had already been disintermediated; the same fate is pending (imminently) for MSM.  People-powered internet news services will take over and ultimately parliament too will be disintermediated and the people will rule by direct democracy, with a simple click-of-a-smartphone app. 

This contempt for the irrelevant and reactionary world of old media is not of course great news if you are an English reporter based in Rome for 24 hours, hoping to catch an interview with Di Maio.  Di Maio’s views are very relevant to the UK, because if a snap general election were held tomorrow, M5S would most probably emerge as the largest party in the country.  Furthermore, both Grillo and Di Maio have said that if M5S does get into power then they will take Italy out of the Euro – though Di Maio has recently moderated his opinion to say that M5S will empower the people to make their own decision via referendum.  Further still, Matteo Renzi, the widely disliked Prime Minister, in a ritual act of self-sacrifice, has called his own referendum on proposed constitutional reforms and he has promised to resign if he loses the vote, which it seems likely he will. 

The streets and piazzas of central Rome have a particularly thuggish air to them when one is a petitionary to power.  The buildings have brutish exteriors and in the diplomatic quarter, near to the Parliament building, the massive closed doorways are staffed by black raincoat-clad secret service doormen and sentries from the Alipini and the Grenadiers, who look like giant, sinister lead soldiers.  Despite many phone conversations and text message exchanges, Di Maio’s team of assistants keep promising but deliver nothing.  I scurry from assignation to assignation, talking to civil servants, business people, MPs and spies.  But not to Di Maio. 

Finally, a breakthrough: a sympathetic MP from a rival party invites me into the Parliament building itself.  The plan: sit down next to Di Maio in the canteen (famously good food) and, with his napkin stuffed in his collar and his soup spoon at his lips, he will be at a tactical disadvantage. ‘You will be in his house’ says my MP friend, ‘even he will behave properly’.  Alas, at midday, a big news story begins to break.  It is a crisis for Di Maio and M5S. He wolfs down his beans and retreats to the privacy of his office before I can get to him. M5S members are under investigation in Bologna for electoral fraud.  Rumours begin to circulate: could it be a set-up? 

There is a joke in Italy about the Italian paranoiac: he wakes up every morning in a cold sweat and says: 'Am I being paranoid enough?’  In the 24 hours of conversations with politicians, civil servants and journalists, I listened to people’s theories that Berlusconi was funded by the mafia (a novice effort), that Casaleggio was funded by a bored CIA agent (moderately interesting), that Putin paid Berlusconi $40bn (funny) and most interestingly of all – a theory proposed and fleshed out in great deal by a retired member of the deep state – that Hamlet wasn’t written by Shakespeare.  But now, theories aside, and despite this most recent set-back, Di Maio and M5S really might be on the verge of power.  If Renzi loses his referendum on 4 December surely there will be a general election?  And M5S might actually win. 

But not so fast.  This is Italy.  As one anonymous political source said: 'Anyone with a brain can see that the whole system is an incredibly delicate mechanism - a living organism in fact – that ensures not only that the Vatican and the mafia and Berlusconi and the union of pharmacists and the union of taxi drivers etc etc are all kept happy but that some state money even goes to pay for the ‘Festival of the Frog’ in some godforsaken province in the south, thereby ensuring that patronage stretches to all corners of the country.  Everyone, from all across the political spectrum are afraid of Five Star’s naïve zeal.  Let them into power and they might do something stupid like cancel a secret gas contract with Russia, or tell Trump to fuck off.  We’re all agreed.  We’ve got to keep them out.'

You may be wondering at my affrontery in quoting an anonymous source at such length but, intriguingly, every journalist, MP, every passerby, and – probably had I asked – even the stray dogs of Rome preferred not to go on record on the subject of Di Maio.  Furthermore, my UK mobile wasn’t working and although I had Di Maio’s number, no Italian wanted to use their phone to call him. Why? 

In the last few days, sensing victory, Beppe Grillo has ramped up the rhetoric on his blog, calling Renzi ‘a wounded sow’ and ‘a morally handicapped person masquerading as Prime Minister’.  The bourse is at 2009 levels.  Bond yields are up at 2.2 percent (German debt is at 1.1 percent).  Given how screwed the Italian banking system is already - stuffed full of non-performing loans as it is - the markets could go into a tail-spin if the no vote triumphs, possibly triggering a crisis that could bring down the Euro and the EU itself. 

But there will be no such drama.  As ever, there is an Italian bureaucrat waiting in the wings ready to slip the political football back up the midfield.  Mario Draghi is Chair of ECB and four days after the referendum he is due to announce whether or not the ECB’s programme of QE will be extended into the new year.  If the ECB does extend QE then the frisky markets will beat a hasty retreat and Italy will be off the hook again.  

Meanwhile, it is very likely that a coalition government will form.   A general election does not have to be called when a PM resigns.  The timing of the next election is in the gift of the President Mattarella.  He could just wait until the five-year parliamentary term ends in 2018, by which time M5S, will have suffered the same fate as the Lib Dems.  Earlier this year M5S won over 17 mayoralities and already exposure to the realities of government has lost them many friends. 

And Di Maio has a fatal flaw:  he is too inexperienced to face off against the Italian establishment which has every arm of state and church and many powers beyond at its disposal.  Already it has become clear that he makes mistakes when under pressure: he denies knowledge of problems or tries to shift the blame to someone else.  And there is something of the Arnaldo Forlani about Di Maio.  Forlani was the 43


Italian PM.  Forlani was deliberately unostentatious and he tried to rise above the populist currents of Italian politics.  He tried to have it all ways but he was eventually forced to resign. 

The one thing that Di Maio absolutely cannot afford to do is to behave like a normal politician, otherwise the grassroots of M5S will ask for his head on a silver platter.  But a story from his trip to London last year shows that he is destined to do just that.  In front of the waiting press corps Di Maio was asked if had ever been to London before.  A look of panic crossed his face: 'London?  I can’t remember…'