Throughout the campaign Grillo, from stages up and down the country, shouted in trademark style that nothing could stop his movement winning – their slogan was Vinciamo noi (We will win) – a slogan which was coupled with veiled threats about triumphal marches and trials by internet of current corrupt politicians. His movement could be called eurosceptic, with Grillo promising a referendum on Euro membership; it stresses economic sovereignty, attacks a current corrupt political elite, and backs further restrictions on immigration. In short, it had plenty of the ingredients that, in other EU countries, proved to be the recipe for success – so why the relative failure?
The press, almost entirely hostile to Grillo and his movement, lay the blame fairly and squarely at Grillo’s own door. A classic tale of hubris and over-reaching, they blame his uncouth and threatening style for the failure – which surely does play a part in it, but given that those same qualities played a major part in his initial success, there must be more to it than that.
One of the clues lies in the strength of Renzi’s win. The last time a win like that happened in Italy was, as before mentioned, in 1958 when the DC party benefitted from a widespread fear that Palmiro Togliatti’s PCI (Communist Party) was about to sweep to victory. A week before this year’s European elections roughly 4 million Italians were said to be in the ‘undecided’ camp, and most polls put Grillo and Renzi close together. Exit polls on Sunday suggested a much closer finish than the final result, suggesting that plenty of people had voted PD but lied about it to pollsters after – something that the DC historically always experienced (and to some extent Berlusconi’s Forza Italia). So a combination of a hostile press, and poorly judged slogans from Grillo surely swung a lot of undecided voters towards the most conservative choice in Renzi.
A hostile press, though, is something faced by other parties across Europe, without problems – Nigel Farage’s UKIP romped home in the UK in a large part precisely because of the obsessive press coverage he received – so why did it backfire on Grillo? Well, the Movimento 5 Stelle has a problem that neither Le Pen’s Front National or Farage’s UKIP have thus far faced. Last year it became, instead of a protest vote, the largest single political force in the country. Unwilling or unable to form a coalition with any of the current parties (and there’s a logic that says ‘can you blame them – look at the criminal records of various actors in each of the main parties), they found themselves in opposition. Opposition is vitally important in any democracy, and in particular in an Italian parliament notorious for ad-personam laws and conflicts of interest, but the harsh opposition of the M5S has helped establish them as a negative party rather than a positive force.
High profile expulsions from the movement haven’t helped either – allowing a hostile media to portray Grillo, who in theory is a spokesperson and guarantor for the movement rather than leader, as a Stalinist dictator.
And as Grillo struggled to find a place where he could access the media to put across his point, without being beholden to it, Matteo Renzi, uniquely amongst Italian post-war leaders, benefitted from a positive press across the board – something unheard of in a country where everything, and most particularly the press, is divided into Left vs Right. Renzi has at the same time adopted plenty of Grillo’s tactics – taking to the piazzas across the country to campaign, tweeting and answering questions online. Having the best of both worlds, in terms of communication.
So the result, while respectable, is likely to exacerbate tensions in a movement that is young and inexperienced (it was founded in 2009, and most of its elected representatives have no prior experience of elected office). Already there have been calls for Grillo to take a step back and allow the movement to develop new spokespeople and, persumably, a leader. All the signs, thus far this week, suggest that this won’t happen – at least in the short term. So the movement is, for the first time, stuck in a rut.
That the PD could swing from a 25% vote last year in the national elections, through to a 40.8% victory in the European elections seems to herald a new phase of ‘liquid’ politics, far removed from the entrenched centre-left vs centre-right model of the last twenty years. The exit polls from the vote are in themselves an element for Renzi’s brave new PD to worry about: people are convinced enough to vote, in these European elections – but unhappy to admit it.
The winning factor, across the board, seems to have been change. Both the PD and to a much smaller extent the Lega benefitted from a change in leadership – but Grillo’s failure to pick up votes demonstrates how little patience voters have at this stage. If you stand for radical reform and change of the current system, you’re likely to be rewarded, but if you fail to deliver – and deliver quickly – then you’ll be punished. The PD had it easy this time around, with the lack of credible alternatives, but that may not be the case when they are eventually pushed into national elections.
What does all this mean for Europe? Italy is still struggling badly, and Renzi has campaigned on introducing more flexibility and growth-supporting measures in Europe. It’s hardly likely, though, that the austerity-favouring northern nations are quaking in their boots. Rather than wholescale changes being made to existing financial treaties, it’s more likely that Italy will seek leniency and flexibility in terms of deadlines and technical criteria – something that countries like Germany can probably live with, provided that Renzi manages to bring forward several promised reforms. Italy will hold the Presidency of the Council of Europe in July, and so will look to do a certain amount of agenda setting, something that will be more legitimate now given that the PD’s have had such a strong vote.
The PD need to have concrete gains from their position in Europe if they’re to hold on to this unexpected windfall of votes. Domestically sooner or later there will be an election, and thus far all the economic indicators are poor. With little or no growth, stagnant wages and reduced spending power a 40% vote in favour of the PD and the EU could be a distant memory by the time we go to elections. And if Matteo Renzi has gained nothing from his European partners in that time, then we can expect further wild swings in the vote.