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Despite several faux steps, the Five Star Movement now the most popular party in Italy

by Manuela Perrone

All pollsters agree: if Italian voters went to the polls today, the Five Star Movement would be the number one party. Opinion polls on average credit the anti-establishment movement with 30% of votes. According to Ipsos, one of the most influential research groups, the movement founded by comedian Belle Grillo would have a five-point lead over the ruling Democratic Party (PD) of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (32.3% versus 26.8%).
The record result depends on the trend of the past month, when the M5S gained 1.4% and the PD lost 3.3%.

The center right remains broadly stable, with the Northern League party led by Matteo Salvini at 12.8%, Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia at 12.7% and Giorgia Meloni's Fratelli d'Italia at 4.6%.

The main reason behind the PD’s fall in terms of voters intentions is no doubt represented by the decision of a minority led by former Secretary Pier Luigi Bersani to leave the party and fund the new Democratic and Progressive Movement (Mdp) together with other dissidents, including former Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema. The split has reopened old wounds and left much resentment in its tracks. Renzi's resignation as PD secretary and the opening of a new internal debate, which will conclude on April 30 with the primaries between Renzi, Justice Minister Andrea Orlando, and Puglia Governor Michele Emiliano, do not help either as the prevailing perception is that of party that lacks unity and a clear program for the road ahead.

This is, instead, the strength of the Five Star Movement, which has grown in the polls despite its faux steps: from the failure of Rome’s administration under Mayor Virginia Raggi to Grillo's efforts to silence through his blog dissident voices without forgetting the many divisions surfacing at local level. The M5S is indeed in trouble in many of the cities where administrative elections will be held next June.

This is the case of Grillo's hometown of Genoa, where the leader for the first time intervened to disown the online vote that had crowned the local candidate for mayor (favored by the base unlike Grillo's closest allies in Liguria) and called for all members in Italy, not only in Genoa, to ratify the choice of the second candidate, considered as closer to the leadership's line. This is a flagrant breach of the principle of direct democracy so important to the M5S.

Despite all this, the movement has not only held its positions, but gained new ground. Why? “The movement is growing not only because of the mistakes of the other parties, but also because for four years we have been by the side of those who suffer. And because we have not changed by a bit,” said Congressman Alessandro Di Battista, one of the most popular figures of the movement. “Today there's a climate similar to Tangentopoli, when corrupt people sought protection at all costs. But the M5S tsunami is coming.”

Ipsos pollster Luca Comodo offered a more independent explanation. “The M5S electorate has so far been impenetrable and represents around one third of Italian voters.”
Voters are sensitive to the message of the movement: the fight against the privileges of lobbies and the powerful (politicians and journalists being the target), the income of citizenship promised to the poor, criticism against the euro and a Europe made of bureaucracy and technocrats.

The excessive simplification of languages and proposals, accompanied by a virtual, low-cost structure (the movement has no offices) has a strong appeal on the share of population disappointed with traditional politics and who seeks reassuring messages as it confronts an increasingly complex world.

The post-ideology stance, which allows to mix with nonchalance right and left ideas, completes the winning formula.These are the factors behind the M5S's rise. But other issues threaten the movement, the most important of which is the electoral law for the 2018 election: the parliamentary debate awaits to know the fate of the PD and Renzi's moves after his likely reelection at the helm of the party. So far nobody alone would win the majority necessary to form a government. Nobody is close to the 40% which, based on the current electoral law, would grant the majority premium.

The successful (so far) decision by the M5S to run alone and reject alliances could become the true hurdle on its path towards conquering the country's government. Unless, as it turns from an anti-establishment force into a government party, the M5S renounces to its dogmatic approach and seeks support from the separatist Northern League or the anti-Renzi movement, which has already indicated to be available for discussions.