How a New Political Party Talked Its Way Into Leading Europe’s Third-Largest Economy

line circle

by Joy Portella


As Americans steel ourselves after another roiling set of recent events – a raid on the offices of the president’s private attorney, a literary screed by the former head of the FBI, and lest we forget, we bombed Syria – it can be comforting to look to another Western democracy that’s in more precarious shape than the U.S. Look no further than one of our favorite tourist destinations: Italy.


I have a special interest in Italy. I’m Italian-American, and my husband and I travel to Italy frequently. He has dual citizenship and I’m working to get mine. We have a grand plan to ultimately spend a few months a year living and working there. The political situation in Italy matters to us.


Post-WWII Italian politics have been more chaotic than in most Western European countries – marked by crippling corruption, communists, fascists, tenuous coalitions, frequent no-confidence votes, and a Trump-style media-mogul-turned-national-leader before we even imagined Trump. Since 1946, Italy has had more than 60 governments. There’s a lot going on.


But elections this past March were, even by Italian standards, particularly bonkers. The big winner of the elections was the barely decade-old Five Star Movement, a populist, anti-establishment, anti-corruption party that won nearly 33% of the vote. That’s significantly more than any other political party, but not enough to run the government alone so they’ll need to form a coalition – more on that later.


For Five Star – a party without a political tradition or a consistent platform – electoral victory was a win of communication choices, not policy recommendations. Here are a few examples of what Five Star did well:


  • Opposition branding: The Five Star Movement’s brand is ostensibly positive, built on the ideals of providing a basket of good-sounding stuff like public access to clean water and the internet, sustainable transportation and development, and environmentalism. But in practice, their appeal has been based on opposition to a range of political hot button issues. They’re consistently anti-establishment and anti-corruption, and they’ve been less consistently opposed to everything from immigrants to the Euro to vaccines. They’re also big on promulgating conspiracy theories. In short, if there’s anything that disaffected Italian voters are angry about, the Five Star Movement is vocally opposed to it.


  • Audience clarity: There’s plenty to be angry about, particularly if you’re a young person. Italian youth unemployment rates are upwards of 30% – nearly twice the European Union average. Many young people have no clear career trajectory and may need to leave their region – or even their country – to find jobs. The Five Star Movement speaks directly to these young people, who are fed up with an entrenched political establishment that appears to ignore them. The strategy worked. As this post-election Guardian article explains, many of Five Star’s big wins were in areas with high concentrations of people under the age of 30. If you want to know more about the party’s youth appeal, check out this excellent Atlantic article.


  • Built on the Web: The Five Star Movement started as a web-based political party that emphasized direct political participation via the Internet to bypass the corrupt power structures of traditional political parties. This approach has had massive appeal to people at both ends of the Italian political spectrum – and everywhere in between. It’s also sparked a healthy debate about the merits and challenges of direct participation. But even with these huge advantages, there’s a big potential downside. Online political organizing has created a vague and inconsistent platform as Italians of all political stripes have crowdsourced policy recommendations. Combined with the anti-establishment foundations of the party, it’s tough to see how Five Star can become a stable, governing force. As historian David Broder recently noted, “The discourse of the Five Star Movement lacks any defining positive element of its own.” And that makes it difficult to govern.


Italians may never find out what a governing Five Star-led coalition looks like because the party has not been able to form a ruling coalition. The initial idea was that Five Star would join with the right-wing League coalition, which garnered 37% of the vote in March, to form a clear governing majority. But Five Star is insistent that the League dump former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose own story is too long and lurid to recount here but it includes corruption, fraud, soccer, and prostitutes – here’s a good read about him. The League refuses and now the Italian president has asked Five Star to pursue governing talks with the center-left coalition. In the meantime, Italy is left with a lame-duck, caretaker government.


It’s difficult to imagine what comes next – this is Italy after all – but my gut tells me that communication will play a big role. If you’ve ever seen three elderly Italian men on a street corner hold a gesture-filled and seemingly endless conversation about nothing, you know I’m right.


About The Author

Minerva Strategies

Minerva Strategies

The Minerva team has decades of experience working with nonprofits, foundations, and values-driven companies. Minerva also partners with experts—trusted designers, web developers, global communications professionals, and others—who share our excitement for creating positive social change. Through these partnerships, we can build a team that is tailored to your needs. Learn more about who we are or what we do.