Populist insurgency not working well in Italy

Readers will remember the Italian election in February, marked by an extremely close result, gross tactical incompetence on the centre-left and the eventual emergence of a grand coalition government. One memorable aspect was the emergence of the 5-Star Movement, a populist force led by comedian Beppe Grillo that captured about a quarter of the vote and won the balance of power in the Senate.

With the centre-left and centre-right in coalition, Grillo’s party became the official opposition in both houses. So how are they handling the task?

Not well, apparently. Last weekend was the second round of local elections in Italy, and it was a big victory for the centre-left. They unseated the centre-right incumbent as mayor of Rome with 63.9% of the vote and won or held control of most of the large towns that were up for election, including Ancona, Brescia, Pisa, Treviso and Vicenza (the results are all here). The 5-Star movement made almost no impact, with most of its candidates eliminated in the first round.

This isn’t quite as significant as it might seem; firstly because local elections are usually a pretty happy hunting ground for the centre-left in any case, and secondly because most of the country’s large cities weren’t voting this time around. And in any case you wouldn’t expect local elections to be a very good test for a protest movement whose main target is national politicians. Still, it wasn’t a good look for them.

And it’s produced repercussions. Two of its MPs quit last week, and this week one of its senators, Adele Gambaro, attacked Grillo for, among other things, “his threatening blog posts, especially those attacking parliament” (here’s one in English). Grillo replied (on his blog, of course), describing her as “worth nothing”, and later threatened to abandon the movement entirely.

For anyone who follows politics, this should be an entirely predictable consequence of electing a whole group to parliament with no political experience.

I can’t help but think of the 1998 state election in Queensland, where Pauline Hanson’s One Nation won 22.7% of the vote, comfortably beating both the Liberal and National Parties and winning eleven seats (out of 89). This was its opportunity to establish itself as a significant parliamentary force that the old parties would have to come to terms with.

Of course it did no such thing. The party basically disintegrated; one of its MPs resigned from parliament, the others all left the party prior to the following election, with some forming a rival party (which went nowhere) and others contesting their seats as independents (only two were successful). One Nation still exists, but it has had no significant political influence since 2001.

I should say that I have more sympathy with Grillo’s politics than with Hanson’s, but the basic dynamic is the same. Parliamentary politics is not self-explanatory: an established party can bring in MPs from all walks of life because there are more experienced people there to guide them and show them how parliament works. But if you start with just a diverse collection of people without a background in politics, they’re going to be completely at sea.

That’s why in emerging democracies, where there’s either no parliament to start with or the old MPs are all on one side, new parties typically start with a strong presence of lawyers and academics, who at least have an understanding of the political process. Without that things tend to end badly.

Insurgents like Grillo (and Hanson) don’t like to admit that limitation; their vision is that ordinary citizens should be able to walk into parliament and shake it up, sweeping out the corrupt establishment. But in order to fight the establishment on its turf you first have to understand it.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to reduce the size and scope of government to the point where everyman and everywoman can again be legislators in their spare time. Until then, Italy’s experience should be a warning against trying to dispense with professional politicians altogether.


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