Italy’s Five Star Movement – a spectral analysis of its political composition

By Francesco Bailo

Francesco Bailo is a PhD student in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University Of Sydney and a guest researcher at WZB. He is completing his dissertation thesis on online forms of political mobilisation, organisation and deliberation, focusing on the case of the Five Star Movement in Italy.

To talk about identity and soul of the Five Star Movement (M5S) is not only politically contentious but also practically challenging because of the different axes (at least three) along which the M5S has been developing: the vertical top-down axis from Beppe Grillo to his followers (and sympathising voters), the horizontal axis connecting thousands of militants across the country to local, flexible and loosely organised meetups, and finally the cloudy axis linking Internet users through the different online communicative platforms pertaining to the Movement. The academic literature and the media have been prevalently interested in mapping the provenance of votes. I will try here to show some data also on the position of the M5S derived from its 2013 electoral program and the political background of both the onsite and online activists of the Movement.

But let’s first start briefly introducing the trajectory of a movement that vehemently refuses to be called a party or to be associated with any traditional political identity.

 

A very brief history of the Five Star Movement

At the beginning of the M5S there’s a blog, Beppe Grillo’s blog. Before creating his blog (beppegrillo.it) in January 2005, Grillo worked as standing comedian on Italian TV between the 70s and the 90s and later on stages of theatres and sport arenas around Italy. The blog was (probably) originally intended as a companion to his shows, on which Grillo would publish short posts about the issues treated on stage. The main theme was ecology (energy, waste management, sustainable mobility) but already among the very first posts it emerged a desire to go behind individual issues and to do something (more) political. On January 28, 2005 Grillo published a post titled ‚Politics disappeared‘

What’s politics? Nobody knows it anymore. Does it still make sense to talk of Right, and Left and centre? Maybe it makes more sense to talk of above and below. […] In politics we don’t need a leader, we are grown up people. We need a vision of the world […].

In few hours the post was commented more than 1000 times. The comment section of beppegrillo.it was the cradle for a growning community of people not necessarily with experience in political participation – as we will see – but united by a deep dissatisfaction (and possibly disgust) with the current state of affairs. The call to stand out and show up came later that year, on July 2005. In another blog post Grillo wrote

I thought on how to do to give all who follow my blog the opportunity to meet to discuss, take the initiative, see each other in person. To transform a virtual discussion into an opportunity to change. I discussed with my collaborators and I decided to use MeetUp. MeetUp is a site that allows to organise in a simple way meetings among people interested in a topic.

The community of commenters finally touched ground and turned into a network of local assemblies. (For a video on the geographical evolution of the groups click here.)

A national movement started to took shape after the foundational event of September 2007, the V-Day, when Grillo rallied thousands of people in different Italian cities. One year later Grillo announced that the Movement would run in local elections. The first significant electoral successes came in 2012 when the Movement scored unexpectedly good results in Northern cities – the M5S obtained a symbolic victory in Parma where its candidate was elected mayor – and in Sicily. But the real surprise was the result of the national election in 2013 when the M5S obtained more than 25% of the general vote becoming the most voted party nation-wide. Notably, in the post-war history of Italian elections only three parties obtained more than 20% in their first election: the Christian Democracy and the Italian Communist Party (as part of the Popular Democratic Front) in 1948 and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in 1994.

The results of the 2013 general election raise questions on the characteristics of the electoral base of the movemens and more generally on the characteristics of the Movement itself: what does it represent for the Italian party system and where can be situated within the European left-right political tradition? To try to answer these questions I propose the analysis of the electoral program of the M5S published in 2013, the electoral flows from other parties to the M5S, and the Movement’s militants active both online and onsite.

 

The 2013 electoral program

According to the Manifesto Project Database the position of the M5S’s electoral program presented for the 2013 general election is on the extreme left of the political spectrum: in fact, based on the coding of 167 party positions between 1946 and 2013, it is the most far-left program ever presented by an Italian party. The Figure below (Figure 1) shows the density distribution of 167 positions of Italian parties coded on a -100 (left-wing) to +100 (right-wing) scale. The median of the distribution (also indicated) is close to zero while the position of the M5S – with -49 – is 29 points below the second most left-leaning party running in the 2013 election.

Figure 1: Left-Right Placement Distribution of 167 Italian parties between 1946 and 2013

Figure 1: Left-Right Placement – Distribution of 167 Italian parties between 1946 and 2013

The next Figure (Figure 2) tries to shed light on what such an extreme position is based on by comparing the position of the M5S in three different dimensions: planned economy, market economy and welfare (the M5S did not express any foreign policy position in the program). Accordingly the Movement scores low (higher scores represents more favorable positions) in terms of market economy positions (altought not too far from the median), is in the right tail of the distribution for welfare and totally out of the distribution for planned economy.

Figure 2: Locating the M5S on different policy issues in comparison to other Italian parties between 1946 and 2013

Figure 2: Locating the M5S on different policy issues in comparison to other Italian parties between 1946 and 2013

The 2013 program of the M5S is below the mean also in terms of policy items touched. The following Figure shows the distribution of number of items coded for each electoral program (Figure 3). The program of the M5S describes the position of the Movement for 17 policy items while the average after 1990 is 24.7.

Figure 3: Items classified for M5S election manifestos in comparison to items classified for other Italian party manifestos since 1990

Figure 3: Items classified for M5S election manifestos in comparison to items classified for other Italian party manifestos since 1990

Electoral base

A number of studies has be published offering an analysis of the dynamics of the elctorate of the M5S. Bordignon and Ceccarini (2012) describes the electorate of a movement that at the time of the study was estimated to attract around 9% of votes in local elections but that was also already projected to potentially reach 20% of votes. According to Bordignon and Ceccarini, the electorate of the M5S was at least originally inclined towards the left of the political spectrum and it was mainly „young, educated, resident of medium-large cities“ and more connected to the Internet than the average. Referring to a survey study conducted between 2010 and 2012 they argue that the political profile of the electorate did evolve: during this period the percentage of potential M5S voters who self-identified themselves as right-wing or centre-right-wing passed from 11% to 28%. In a more recent study, Pedrazzani and Pinto (2015) observe that the same trend continued after 2012: an analysis of opinion polls conducted between 2012 and 2013 confirms that the fraction of electorate inclined towards the M5S that voted centre-right in 2008 passed from 27.6% before the 2012 local elections to 42.1% during the 2013 national election. Diamanti (2014) describes the Movement as a bus conducted by Grillo: the Movement initially took on board left-wing supporters mobilised around traditional environmental issues, subsequently stopped opening the doors to right-wing voters dissatisfied with the leadership of their parties, and finally – just before the 2013 general election – attracted supporters of Matteo Renzi (Italy’s current prime minister) who had been recently defeated by Bersani in the primaries of the Democratic Party. According to Diamanti „the M5S offered hospitality and citizenship to all those dissatisfied and frustrated with the combined ethical, political and economic crisis […] the Movement became a vehicle for anti-political protest“.

Data produced by a national electoral study conducted in 2013 after the general elections (Associazione Itanes, 2013) confirms that the electorate of the M5S is indeed extremely composite and almost specular along the axis separating the left and right hemispheres. Nevertheless, the first interesting result (Figure 4 below) concerns how the M5S voters self-identify themselves: more than 60% refuse to take position between right and left, 20% declare themselves as left-wing and 8% right-wing. According to these figures the M5S electorate is less left-wing than the overall sample (3 percentage points difference), less right-wing (5 percentage points) and more uncomfortable with traditional left-right labelling (10 percentage points).

Figure 4: Left-Right self-identification of M5S voters

Figure 4: Left-Right self-identification of M5S voters

To understand which party is more represented among M5S voters, I compare in the next Figure (Figure 5) the percentage of 2013 M5S voters according to what they declare to have voted in the 2008 general election and the national results of the same parties in 2008 (ordered left to right on the horizontal axis from far-left to far-right). Clearly no party is extremely overrepresented and the 2008 preferences of M5S voters seem to closely map the actual result of each party in that election. The only parties to be overrepresented are SA (the Left – the Rainbow) and IdV (Italy of Values) but most of the other parties show very limited differences including the two major parties: the PD (Democratic Party, with a difference of less than 4 percentage points) and the PDL (the People of Freedom, with a difference of less than 3 percentage points). The LN (Northern League) on the far-right shows a difference of only 1.3 percentage point. If we group parties in two broad coalitions (although not the actual coalitions of the 2008 election) we observe that 46.8% of M5S voters voted in 2008 a centre-right party while 53.2 a centre-left party.

Figure 5: Election choices of M5S voters in 2008 in comparison with national election result 2008

Figure 5: Election choices of M5S voters in 2008 in comparison with national election result 2008

But how strong is the association between vote preferences in 2008 and opinion on political issues? To define whether there is any difference in the relation vote/opinion between M5S voters and non-M5S voters I perform two regression analysis the first on respondents declaring a vote for the M5S in 2013 and the second on all the other respondents of the Itanes study (thus also on respondents who did not vote in 2013). Each regression will estimate if it is possible to predict (with a significance test) the vote expressed by the same person in 2008 – either to a left or right-wing party – based on the opinions on 11 issues and for each issue if a positive opinion it is more likely to have been express by someone voting left or right. (The regression details are below) Results are quite striking: if among people who did not vote for the M5S, 7 out 11 opinions are significant in predicting the direction of voting (devolution of tax administration, need for leadership, abortion, immigration and the economy, inequality, welfare, government intervention in the economy) in the case of the M5S voters only 1 issue is significant (abortion). That is, among M5S voters, the relation between opinions on political issues and political position – as measured by voting preferences – is much more ambiguous than among other voters.

Onsite and Online base

Given the history of Five Star Movement and the strong importance of connective Internet-mediated platforms in sustaining the Movement’s success, it is interesting to compare among M5S voters the political characteristics of onsite activists (who participated at least once to a political meeting, although not necessarily with the M5S) and online activists (who participated at least once to an online political discussion). According to the already cited electoral study of 2013 (Associazione Itanes, 2013), among M5S voters who participated in political meetings in two years preceeding the administration of the survey only 31.8% participated also online while among online participants 43% participated also to onsite meetings. To put it differently of the 66 M5S voters who either participated to onsite meetings or took part in online discussions, only 21.2% took part in both activities. More technically a chi-squared test for tabular association among the two forms of participation fails to reject the null hypothesis of non-association (p-value=0.1122). This is interesting because it seems to indicate that (although the number of observations is limited) among M5S voters there is no correlation between participating onsite and online.

The following Figure shows (in the left panel) the distribution of onsite participants according to the party they voted in 2008 and (in the right panel) the difference from the general population of M5S voters (Figure 6). Again both the right and the left wings seem to be represented among onsite activists: 52.6% of M5S activists (53.2% in the general population of M5S voters) have voted left-wing parties in 2008 and 47.4% (46.8%) right-wing parties. That is, onsite activists seem to be even more balanced between right and left then general M5S voters. Notably the NL (Northern League) is clearly overrepresented among onsite activists possibly reflecting the strong militancy tradition of that party.

Figure 6: 2008 vote choices of M5S onsite particiapants (left panel) and difference between vote choice of M5S onsite participants and mean M5S voters (right panel).

Figure 6: 2008 vote choices of M5S onsite particiapants (left panel) and difference between vote choice of M5S onsite participants and mean M5S voters (right panel).

Looking at online political activity, the next Figure confirms that indeed M5S voters are more connected to the Internet that the general population (only 27% M5S voters have no access to the Internet against 39.7% in the rest of the sample) and they are almost twice as active in discussing politics online (16.3% against 8.5%) (Figure 7). Anyhow the Figure also shows that a very large majority of M5S voters (83.7%) never participated to any online discussion.

Figure 7: Online political activity of M5S voters versus mean Italian voters

Figure 7: Online political activity of M5S voters versus mean Italian voters

Participation to online discussions is much more significantly tilted towards the left than onsite participation. The following Figure shows as two far-left parties, SA and IdV are clearly overrepresented among the online activists of the M5S (Figure 8). Of the M5S voters participating to political discussions online, 66.66% have voted centre-left parties in 2008 against 53.2% who voted for centre-left parties among respondants who declared a vote for the M5S in 2013.

Figure 8: Vote choices of M5S voters that are active online (left panel) and M5S voters active online in comparison to mean M5S voters

Figure 8: Vote choices of M5S voters that are active online (left panel) and M5S voters active online in comparison to mean M5S voters

By testing the significance of association between party voted in 2008 on one side (as proxy of political identity) and both onsite and online participation among M5S voters, it appears that party provenance is more significantly associated with online activism than with offsite activism. And yet the picture changes when we control for the provenance from far-right or far-left parties. In the case of online activism the significance of the association increases when we test provenance from far-left parties (SA and IdV) but not when we control for provenance from both far-right and far-left. But interestingly in the case of onsite activism the association is significant for provenance from both far-right and far-left parties. This confirms that the two activities are not equally preferred by the two camps and that right-wing activists prefer traditional (onsite) forms of participation.

What and where is the M5S?

The Five Start Movement was born out of a left-wing experience with traits originally collocating it in the family of the European environmentalist movements: ecologism, welfare state, soft anti-capitalism, praise for grassroots democracy. The 2013 electoral program testifies this early aspect. Yet quite characteristically the Movement also expressed since the very beginning a strong anti-establishment message that in the peculiar Italian contexts took the shape of an anti-politics sentiment. Precisely the anti-politics (but some could say populist) rhetoric of Beppe Grillo and his movement could have attracted the sympathies of right-wing voters, up to the point that right and left-wing components are now almost in perfect balance within the Movement. The sentiment of profound distrust towards political institutions (parliament and parties) is not only popular among right-wing voters though: in fact, looking at the electoral survey of 2013 it appears that distrust is strong across the board. In the following Figure I show the level of trust of M5S voters towards parliament (left panel) and parties (right panel) according to their vote in 2008 (Figure 9). At the bottom of each pannel I aggregate left-wing and right-wing voters: if parliament is slightly less distrusted by left-wing voters (80% distrust it against 85% among right-wing voters), the sentiment towards parties is virtually the same: 95% of left and right-wing voters distrusts them.

Figure 9: Trust of M5S voters towards parliament (left panel) and towards political parties (right panel)

Figure 9: Trust of M5S voters towards parliament (left panel) and towards political parties (right panel)

Indeed this sentiment towards representative institutions could very much be the glue keeping the electorate of the Movement together. The problem for the M5S is that of course sentiments are volatile and cannot necessarily translate in achievable policy proposals. Agreement on policy proposals is much harder to obtain within an extremely heterogeneous movement. Notably two proposals that were totally absent in the 2013 program and that certainly are more appreciated – at least in Italy – by a right-wing electorate are now recurrently raised by the leadership of the Movement: immigration control and abandoning the common currency. This may indicate that the Movement is trying to strategically consolidate the 2013 victory but might also signify that the influx of right-wing militants active both offline and online somehow was able to redefine the identity of the Movement. In a paper that will be published early next year (Bailo, forthcoming) I show that on the online forum of the Movement right-wing participants were as vocal as left-wing participants in asking for tougher migration policies. (Here I map the interactions online activists discussion migration). Whether the Movement will be able to sustain this diversity – let alone to produce a coherent set of policies – is clearly an open question. According to recent polls, after the unexpected 25% of the general election in 2013, the Movement demonstrated to be able to stabilise around the 20% of the general vote it obtained in the 2014 European election.

In the next years, two scenarios are foreseeable. In a first scenario the Movement will succeed to institutionalise its internal political differences rallying its heterogeneous electorate around few but highly visible policy items – such as the battle on the Euro, which could potentially also attract left-wing voters. This synthesis can also be facilitated by the fact that although the M5S electorate did vote heterogeneously in 2008, opinions of M5S voters do not seem to align along traditional party lines (see the regression analysis); in fact the post-party discourse of the M5S could effectively and – against the opinion of most of political commenters also genuinely – represents the ‚ambiguous‘ set of opinions of one fourth of the Italian electorate. Alternatively, in a second scenario, one of the different identities of the Movement – possibly also a trasversal identity such as a radical anti-establishment identity – will hegemonise the party and impose its style. In the first case the Movement can aspire to maintain a 15-25% of the national vote and in the second case probably only 5-10%. Today only one person is able to steer the Movement: Beppe Grillo. Some members of parliament can aspire to take control of the Movement after Grillo – who seems to contemplate a less active role in the organisation of the Movement – but no one will have the same kind of legitimacy and unquestionable authority towards all the different Movement’s components. That passage of power will be crucial in defining the future of the M5S. Sustained factionalism among MPs will certify the death of the Movement political heterogeneity. Collegial direction and the rapid emergence of shared and visible policy proposals will instead open the way to the continuation of the M5S’s political non-identary experiment. In any event, it is probable that given the history of the Five Star Movement, the role that the two loose networks of online and onsite activists will play then is going to be extremely interesting.

Appendix: Logistic regression

Dependent variable:
Voted centre-left in 2008
Voted M5S in 2013 Didn’t vote M5S in 2013
(1) (2)
Immigrants should adapt to Italian cultural traditions 0.026 0.033
p = 0.916 p = 0.759
The government should not intervene in the economy 0.232 -0.333***
p = 0.365 p = 0.0004
We should act more decisively to protect the environment 0.060 -0.015
p = 0.877 p = 0.925
Women should be given preferential treatment in the job search and during their career 0.111 0.085
p = 0.645 p = 0.367
People who break the law should receive harsher sentences -0.099 0.107
p = 0.774 p = 0.443
A stable system of social protection should be the first objective of any government -0.190 0.318**
p = 0.592 p = 0.045
The government should take action to reduce the differences in income between citizens 0.304 0.270**
p = 0.358 p = 0.019
Immigrants are good for the Italian economy -0.044 0.384***
p = 0.856 p = 0.0001
It should be more difficult to obtain an abortion -0.667*** -0.231***
p = 0.001 p = 0.006
Today Italy needs a strong leader -0.397 -0.529***
p = 0.155 p = 0.00001
Taxes should be independently administered by Regions 0.105 -0.276***
p = 0.655 p = 0.004
Constant 1.734 -0.106
p = 0.421 p = 0.895
Observations 108 685
Log Likelihood -65.026 -405.530
Akaike Inf. Crit. 154.052 835.060
Note: *p<0.1; **p<0.05; ***p<0.01

The logistic regression uses question D45 of the 2013 Italian National Election Study as dependent variable and questions D44 (1-11) as independent variables. Independent variables are coded on a 1 to 4 scale and correpsond respectively to answers „Don’t agree at all“, „Don’t quite agree“, „Somewhat agree“, Fully agree“, answers „Don’t know“ and „No answer“ are dropped from the analysis. Dependent variable is a binary variable coded according to party voted in 2008 and assumes value 1 if the party was a centre-left party and 0 if the party was centre-right, answers „Didn’t vote“, „No answer“, „Don’t remember“, „Other“ are dropped from the analysis.

References

Associazione Itanes. (2013). Italian National Election Studies. Retrieved 30 April 2015, from http://www.itanes.org/dati/

Bailo, F. (forthcoming). Mapping online political talks through network analysis: A case study of the website of Italy’s Five Star Movement. Policy Studies.

Bordignon, F., & Ceccarini, L. (2012). 5 Stelle, un autobus in MoVimento. Il Mulino, 5, 808–816.

Diamanti, I. (2014). The 5 Star Movement: a political laboratory. Contemporary Italian Politics, 6(1), 4–15. http://doi.org/10.1080/23248823.2014.881016

Pedrazzani, A., & Pinto, L. (2015). The electoral base: the ‘political revolution’ in evolution. In F. Tronconi (Ed.), Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement: organisation, communication and ideology (pp. 75–99). Farnham: Ashgate Publishing.

Volkens, A., Lehmann, P., Merz, N., Regel, S., & Werner, A. (2014). The Manifesto Data Collection. Manifesto Project (MRG/CMP/MARPOR). Version 2014b. Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB). Retrieved from https://manifestoproject.wzb.eu/

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