At the beginning of January 2017, the Italian Eurosceptic Five Star Movement (informally shortened M5S), led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, tried to strike an agreement to join the vehemently Euro-federalist ALDE group in the European Parliament, led by the former Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt. This proposed agreement – supported by the presidents of both parties – was later rejected due to internal opposition within the ALDE itself.

The same deal was subject to a vote among M5S supporters due to M5S policies and was approved with 78%. After the rejection by ALDE, the party returned to the Eurosceptic group EFDD, together with Farage’s UKIP.

Hence, such a turncoat behaviour of the Italian side comes to many as mystery with no clue. Why a Eurosceptic and self-declared anti-establishment pro direct democracy movement could make such a shift of sides overnight? Let us try to follow the clues about the internal mechanisms and “liquid democracy” of the movement, which they think it should be a model for Italy to follow.

We start by comparing the current model of direct democracy in Italy with the one the party claims to have and highlight the democratic discrepancy between them. Then, we tentatively try to figure out some insight about why this party is so popular in Italy.

A bit of background: direct democracy in Italy – History and sovereignty to the people

The Italian peninsula has a long history of parliamentarianism and direct democracy, as well as of their authoritarian drifts dating back from the Greek colonies in the southern coast (Magna Graecia) of over two thousand years ago to the current Italian republic. Some city-states had lasting institutions of direct democracy, almost always by having the assembly of all freemen act as the parliament, such as San Marino’s Arengo or the Concio of the early Republic of Venice, the latter progressively disenfranchised in its power by the merchant and noble class. While those assemblies gained remarkable achievements, they  leaned towards being forms of ochlocracy or mob rule, especially during times when the theory of separation of powers was not yet developed.

Finding a balance with the power of direct democracy within the state framework was no easy task. Thus, while the scope of this institution changed over centuries – at times disappearing and reappearing much later with different forms ad scopes in many places – it was still abused by Napoleon and then by Napoleon III. Yet, referenda found their way to the Italian Republic’s Constitution under the fundamental assumption that the ultimate sovereignty belongs to the people, as the article 1 of Italian Constitution states.

How it works in Italy

Under this premises, articles 75 and 138 of Italian Constitution discipline binding referenda in Italy. There, those of national interest belong to two types:

  • Constitutional referenda, that is to amend the constitution, are called if a constitutional reform fails to be approved at last by 2/3 of each house of the parliament and its proponents want still to push the reform through, as the case of the Italian government triggering the 2016 constitutional referendum we discussed about recently;
  • Abrogative referenda, that is to abolish an existing law or a part of it, may be issued either by collecting signatures from at least 500k voters (citizen-issued case) or with the backing of 5 Regional Councils.

Some types of laws cannot be subject of abrogative referenda, most notably international treaties, under the rationale that agreements must be kept. The EU and the Euro fall both in this category.

Practically speaking, this setting uses direct democracy essentially as a tool for the system of checks and balances: collecting 500k signatures requires either organization or a strong popular demand for it, so that if the parliament were to approve a law that would factually damage the democratic order yet being constitutional, the people may repeal it. For instance, some Italians felt a sense of duty towards the rule of law, when they repealed in 2011 through referendum a set of laws that would have made legal for Berlusconi, by virtue of being the then prime minister, “skip” trials against him.

Moreover, theoretically speaking, due to the citizen-issued nature of this institution, the mere fact that such referenda are possible should stimulate an interplay between direct democracy or the people and the parliament: a piece of law that is not repealed by referenda or which has no referenda called for is one the people agree on; if the people reject some parts of a law and the parliament wish to amend again, they amend it and the people may again have a direct a say on it once it has gathered the signatures and so on until both the people and the parliament agree.  Thus, unlike much of Brexit discourse, there is little legitimate feeling of betrayal to a supposed people’s will in this parliamentary actions because, as the people are free to call referenda on their own on what the parliament does, if one does not like how the parliament reviewed a referenda result, they go collect signatures and have another referendum.

Because of this, some argue further that in a state with this kind of direct democratic institutions the best parliament is the one that knows precisely how the people think and would react and thus enacts no law that triggers a referendum, because there are enough representatives of the citizens to predict and anticipate an eventual outcome of a referenda consultation. Referenda are just a check of this property of representativity and a warning for the parliament not to drift away from the supposed social contract of representation they have with the people. Thus, following this interpretation, direct democracy in these countries exists in order to be called the least possible times: a bad parliament is the one that triggers a people reaction for nothing. Even worse to this interpretation are any referenda called by the government: it would mean they want to pass something they were not even able to compromise upon with the representatives of the people, or purposely not wanting to, thus why should the people self-impose a law whose writers feel their opinion so superior to those of the other persons to the point of purposefully avoiding an agreement?

Other interpretations, like Five Star Movement’s one in Italy, instead think that the direct democracy is the purest form of democracy that defends the people and the more it is used, the merrier. They argue further that the technological capabilities of the Internet have made representatives useless, irrelevant, obsolete and even detrimental to the development of the supposed will of the people, with a manner of speech that eerily reminds those Mussolini’s speeches against the parliament claiming that the nature of the democratic compromise was an obstacle to the realization of people’s dreams. Grillo claims instead that the democratic representativeness is that obstacle and wants to replace it with a vague idea of cyber-direct democracy, whose closest realization now would be, according to them, how the Five Star Movement is organized internally. So let us have a look to the structure of the movement.

M5S democracy: still in embryo or mob rule? – Membership of the party

The Five Star Movement is organised around two websites, beppegrillo.it and movimento5stelle.it and has a platform, named “Rousseau” after the philosopher, where the registered members of the party vote on issues of national interest to decide the party’s orientation on a topic or on a law. The party is run mainly through advertisements on their websites and there is nothing to pay to vote as a registered member, though identification is required. All the M5S members that are elected to some office are then supposed to act following the results of such internal votes or else they are expelled by the party. To bind these persons to this online will, candidates running for office with M5S have to sign a contract with the party that fines them in case their personal behaviour disagrees with the will coming out of these referenda, even when the result clashes with their own personal opinion; as Italian Constitution forbids imperative mandates in politics, many detractors of the movement claim such a contract is unlawful, hence null, but no one has put the case to a court up to now.

Some voting flaws

The following points appear just surveying the online website:

  • Obscurantism: What emerges starkly from the first sights of these websites is an aura of obscurantism surrounding the website: much of the content, including all the internal voting process is not public and visible only to the registered members of the party, belittling most of the ideas of transparency surrounding both the theory and practice of democracy, offline and online, as well as the party’s slogans. Moreover, the process of checking, controlling and verifying the votes in their consultations online is not handled by third parties and their platform seems not totally open-source, thereby the task check the correctness of the vote procedure itself from outside is made impossible, a crucial issue in any online vote. This is an enormous difference with Italy, that, despite not being a world champion of transparency, it is not that obscurantist to outsiders, public data exists somewhere.
  • Grillo’s fan club? As the main part of the party accessible to the general public are what is publicly available online and the “meetups” of the movement members, one may wonder about the content of the former and how it is written by the party. It is the personal blog of Mr. Grillo, officially tied to the movement and the public part of the party forum, where there are but a few posts per week. So one may reasonably argue that agreeing with the blog of Grillo is a major reason for an outsider to join the movement. Hence, supposing Grillo’s opinion is coherent in time, any position Grillo has is likely to naturally be the main position of the party. This fact in principle is not that undemocratic for a party, but has consequences on the following points.
  • The internal referenda initiative : But even presuming good faith behind all that layer of obscurantism, we find another prominent difference with the Italian style of direct democracy: the topics and the questions of those internal referenda are chosen by the leadership of the movement. Following all the doctrine aforementioned on referenda, these top-down approaches would not fit well with the Constituent Assembly view of democracy. They had not Internet in post-WW2 clearly, but what is the purpose of putting to vote things just and solely because the head of your party – who you likely agree with as of how outsiders are attracted – wanted to? Following their ideas of politics, this should be because they have no internal representative body to fix their positions as a party, thus they vote everything they think of all together. But then, why should the members not be able to call an internal referendum, not even amending the question and only the leader does? There is some degree of this, namely the M5S members may propose and rate national draft laws through the website and those positively rated are proposed by M5S MPs and MEPs in their parliament, but all of this is still bound to act accordingly to the results of the votes called by the head of the party.

So, is it democracy ultimately by leader’s command, so that the Pied Piper of Hamelin may bind the elected body to follow whatever he thought right and this flock behind him said always yes to? While the flock never ever is allowed to say nothing else?

The shift of sides

It turns out that the members of the Five Star Movement are believed to talk indeed a lot on the private part of the forum and reasonably some should have a sound mind, but the effectiveness of their discourse together – whatever it is – towards the mechanism that regulates the party is far weaker than the one of their leader and this is not just statutory of the president, it is built in the fact that internal questions are called only by the leader, who will likely call them just as Napoleon did in 1790s Italy, just when he needs to find a justification for his actions, with facetiously biased questions, and never on the initiative of anyone else. It is too convenient to be the hero of the people just when you ask the people what you know they will answer, never give the people the chance to talk in first instance and claim the answer to the question you wrote bore further meanings you thought of. Nonetheless, it is said that these internal discussions seem to advice the behaviour of elected members of the party, though the binding whip of votes is still held whimsically at the top of the party.

Therefore, the Europhile of the party may have been there for long and Grillo triggered it once he believed it convenient or just the crowd following him reveres his word whatever he says bringing the party to agree with the shift of sides to ALDE. It is worth noting that Grillo did not call a vote to shift back to EFDD Euroscepticism after the failure of the agreement and instead wrote a post on his blog claiming that “the establishment” forbade the party to partake in ALDE and that “they made the system tremble as never before”, suggesting that probably, despite this boasting phrases, if Grillo were to resettle the thing with a vote to return in EFDD, he would have lost.

In a sense, if the agreement would not have been not failing, it would have been a great reassurance for Italy not to have Eurosceptic winning next elections in any reasonable case, but, concerning democracy, this structure has serious flaws. Nevertheless, if all this hideous sight does not stop people to join the movement, one may start to inquire the causes.

Still the most participatory force?

The Italian Constitution conceives democracy as participation, where all forces have to compromise to realise part of their purposes, not as competition, where a winner is determined and controls the state with some balancements not to break the system.

At the same time, the more traditional parties since decades challenge this participatory view far more than Five Star Movement : Berlusconi, whose party is almost an advertising agency, made the absence of compromises a propaganda cornerstone;  Renzi, last secretary of the Democratic Party, pushed a constitutional referendum, refusing to bargain and compromise again in the parliament – with even the internal minority inside his party – and pushed through a referendum ignoring most advices, then he lost while being scorned as dictator, for the precise reasons running up all through this article: top-down approach in direct democracy is always sign of power plays and inability to come to an agreement. Refusals should come at no surprise. Democrats used and probably use to have vivid internal discussions, but a head of the party that wants any party minority to shut up in virtue of the primary election victory of his, implicitly makes debate mostly meaningless and, when the PM openly states that elections do have clear winners, he is subtly refusing the participatory view of democracy and subtly trampling even those disagreeing with him in the party of his own.

Therefore, despite the flaws, as long as the Five Star Movement shouts of political participation, it is going to seem the most heartily democratic force to many, despite Euroscepticism, anti-intellectualism, against vaccines, fondness of conspiracy theories, with these mortal flaws in their idea of democracy. Just because they have a slight more manifest attitude to value debate and discussion of their policies and take pride in hearing and claiming to hear the citizens.

An acquaintance of mine, Matteo Abis, a PhD student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH), once told me that he started to support this party and became involved in some of their activities. But why someone with such a scientific culture would side with a movement that denies the moon landing and is openly against vaccines? He answered me briefly: “Most of the Five Stars do not even realize, but they follow a radical principle of truth: a decision that is obtained through the synthesis of the needs and beliefs of an ideologically diverse group of members is superior to the decision of the best individual. Every single has too much bias to understand the complexity of the context and, whatever theoretical constructions they could be master of, still little they do about things they do not know. The party still struggles with the de facto top-down approach,    where the most important policies are still determined by the will of its owner Beppe Grillo, but discussions and votes on law proposals are a reality. Even if the result is sometimes against common scientific sense, due to the character and quality of the members, they – and not the others sadly – got the principle right. Other parties have long lost this simple truth.”

Likely, this opinion is minoritarian and a stream of persons joined the party just shouting against the single market, but yet this reason is the one that makes to me more sense and is so inherently built upon the Constitution that I doubt it is too irrelevant. Hence, for how long could the Italian Europhile forces allow themselves to pay the electoral costs of ignoring the importance of being participatory parties within participatory institutions?

Nicolo Ancellotti
Math student at the University of Padua, Nicolo Ancellotti loves to play cello in free time. A person of diverse and multifaceted interests, he is a committed Europeanist and a mostly inactive Wikipedian.

    The judgment in Miller: Representative Democracy Strikes Back

    Previous article

    The law breaking point

    Next article

    You may also like


    Leave a reply