Beppe Grillo

Beppe Grillo

For those last year who shied away from the label “fascist” for the likes of Donald Trump, the preferred term was “populist”. But a story this week from Europe illustrates just what a range of positions that term can cover.

The story centres on the Five Star Movement (M5S), the Italian party led by former comedian Beppe Grillo. M5S is the largest opposition party in Italy’s parliament, and it is tipped to be a serious contender for power in Italian elections expected this year. It scored a big triumph last month with the defeat of then-Italian PM Matteo Renzi’s constitutional referendum.

Almost invariably, M5S is described as “populist”. It is virulently anti-establishment, constantly railing against the corruption of Italy’s elites. And it shares features with other populist movements, including a resistance to classification in left-right terms and a focus on a high-profile charismatic leader from outside the traditional political class.

When a contingent of M5S members was elected to the European Parliament in 2014, they joined up with the group led by the UK Independence Party, Europe of Freedom and Democracy — renamed “Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy” (EFDD) to align itself with one of M5S’ big concerns. But it was always a slightly odd partnership. M5S never shared most of the traditional right-wing concerns of UKIP and its other allies; it supported same-sex marriage, stayed away from law-and-order issues (except when it came to jailing crooked politicians) and didn’t seem to care much about immigration.

The big bond between Grillo and Nigel Farage was their Euroscepticism. But even that masks a difference: M5S is critical of the EU and wants to take Italy out of the euro, but it is not hostile to the whole idea of European integration in the way UKIP is.

[Spectre of right-wing populism haunts Europe as Italy, Austria went to the polls]

So last week, Grillo decided to bolt. A hastily called online poll of party members endorsed his decision to leave EFDD and link up instead with the liberal group, the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats of Europe (ALDE). The move was widely linked to Grillo’s quest for respectability; one academic quoted by The Guardian suggested “a move on the part of the M5S to become more plausible, to stop scaring voters away with its anti-Europeanism and to appear as a mainstream party that is not going to do anything incredibly stupid”.

For ALDE, the accession of M5S members would have made it the third-largest group in the European Parliament, delivering a boost to ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt’s campaign to be elected president of the Parliament. And there were some obvious elements of common ground, especially concerning the need for greater transparency and accountability in European institutions.

On the other hand, the differences between M5S and the parties in ALDE, both as to policy and style, were enormous. ALDE is the most pro-European of the parliamentary groups, advocating deeper fiscal and political integration. And no one would ever accuse ALDE of being populist: its tone is uncompromisingly elitist, almost aristocratic.

In any case, after a day or so for reflection, ALDE dropped the idea, with Verhofstadt saying in a brief statement that “There is insufficient common ground to proceed with the request of the Five Star Movement to join the ALDE Group”. He promised that “on issues of shared interest, such as the environment, transparency and direct democracy,” they would “continue to work closely together”. By yesterday, Farage was welcoming M5S back to his group, saying that their “differences … have been resolved in an amicable manner”.

But whether or not the fiasco harms M5S’ prospects, it highlights an issue that is not going to go away.

Populist parties and candidates typically represent themselves as outsiders, coming from nowhere and aiming to sweep away the baggage of “the system” — to “drain the swamp”, as one prominent populist would have it. But when they have electoral success, they enter into political structures where, in order to get anything done, they have to work, however fleetingly, with established actors. Most of the time, they do a poor job of it.

[Liberte, egalite, and a firm ‘non’ to Trumpism]

Hence the typically short shelf-life of populist parties. A charismatic leader secures the election of a tranche of inexperienced members who know little about government and are ill-disposed to listen to anyone who could teach them. Soon they are lost in the process, fighting among themselves, distracted by side issues or seduced by the temptations of minor office. Those that survive to the next election are unceremoniously evicted by the voters, often in favor of a new set who start the cycle over again. Our own Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer have given vivid illustrations.

But even populists who cling onto some share of power need to answer important questions. Grillo’s oscillation between philosophical opposites shows the difficulty that they face. Having told their supporters that the old dichotomies are obsolete, they find that, in reality, they have to choose sides on a host of traditional but important questions — left v right, integration v isolation, free trade v protection, and so on. Whichever way they choose, many will be disappointed and angry.

Unless Trump can somehow manage to square the circle, his supporters are headed for disillusionment.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey