In Turin, Italy’s Five-Star Movement finds power more challenging than protest

Marco Bertorello, AFP | A supporter of the Five-Star Movement in Turin, Italy's fourth-largest city.

Turin, Italy's first capital, was meant to showcase the Five-Star Movement’s ability to change Italian politics ahead of Sunday’s general election. Instead, it has shown how difficult it is to transform a protest movement into a credible alternative.


in Turin, Italy

Maria’s quaint little dairy shop is a legacy of a fading age, in which city dwellers could find just about anything – from prosciuttos to Easter eggs – at their local grocer. It has stood at the corner of a graceful but now decrepit building for over a century, a witness to a rapidly changing city. “This used to be a beautiful area, but now it’s swarming with drug dealers,” says Maria, 63, of her neighbourhood in Turin’s north. Pulling out a metal bar from under the counter, she adds: “The police do nothing, so I look after my own safety.”

Maria's dairy shop, in Turin's northern suburbs.
Maria's dairy shop, in Turin's northern suburbs. Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Italy’s first capital and its fourth-biggest city, Turin has always been a city of two souls: aristocratic and working class, distinctly Mitteleuropean but with a large immigrant population from the south, home to Italy’s most elegant city centre and some of its shabbiest suburbs, rooting either for Juventus (the elite’s football club) or their historic rivals Torino (the workers’ team).

Two years ago, the suburbs staged an uprising in municipal elections, teaming up with opportunistic right-wing voters to oust the left and put the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement in power. Under new mayor Chiara Appendino, 33, Turin became the political upstarts’ second most important prize after Rome – a springboard for the March 4 national elections, in which Five-Star is expected to scoop the largest share of votes.

Two tales of a city

“Five-Star tends to win where it can make the most of voters’ rejection of ruling parties. In this respect, Turin is an anomaly,” says Andrea Rossi, a journalist at Turin-based La Stampa. He points to the movement’s first victories, in cities that had either gone bankrupt (like Parma), been ravaged by the economic crisis (like Livorno), or in which the entire political class was discredited by corruption scandals (like Rome).

Turin, on the other hand, had just undergone two decades of transformation, bouncing back from years of decay triggered by the decline of Fiat’s Mirafiori car plant, Europe’s largest factory. “The city’s vocation changed, turning to culture, innovation, tourism and the Winter Olympics [hosted in 2006], which brought in the money to revamp the centre and build a subway,” says Rossi. “Nobody can claim that the city is worse off now than 20 years ago. And yet the ruling party lost.”

Piazza San Carlo, in Turin's stylish city centre.
Piazza San Carlo, in Turin's stylish city centre. Wikimedia creative commons

The secret to Five-Star’s victory was exploiting the concept of the two Turins, one well-off and connected, living in the city’s stylish centre, and the other poor and left behind, confined to the periphery. The campaign’s defining moment was the release of a silent video, on the eve of the vote (when campaigning was over), in which Appendino held up handwritten signs promising to reunite the Turin that “queues outside museums” and the one that “queues outside food banks”.

“The Democratic Party was in denial about this rising inequality,” says Rossi. “And it received a gigantic ‘Get lost’’ from the suburban working class that felt abandoned by the left.”

‘Who isn’t populist?’

That spirit of insurgency remains at the heart of the Five-Star Movement, nine years after its launch by firebrand comedian Beppe Grillo. It is a legacy of his “Vaffanculo Day” (Fuck Off Day) stunts, mass gatherings at which Italians were urged to send their discredited political class packing. While it insists on calling itself a “Movement”, Five-Star is now effectively a party – Italy’s biggest, according to polls. But it is still perceived as different from its rivals, says Maurizio Cotta, a professor of political science at the University of Siena.

“Five-Star’s original protest message is still its main asset in a country where opinions of mainstream parties range from disaffection to disgust,” says Cotta. He adds: “To some extent, their inexperience can be seen as attractive, given that many Italians feel the so-called ‘experts’ have hardly proven their worth.”

The terms most frequently used to label Five-Star are “populist” and “anti-establishment”. While the latter is unquestionably accurate, the “populist” label has become largely devoid of meaning in a campaign where mainstream leaders – chief among them a resurgent Silvio Berlusconi – have splashed out ludicrously expensive promises with wanton abandon, without bothering to say how they’ll pay for them. As Cotta puts it, “It’s almost a case of, ‘who isn’t populist?’”

Five-Star’s mixed bundle of vague and at times changing policies makes it hard to categorize. Its environmentalism and fierce anti-corruption stance bring it closer to the left, whereas its Euroscepticism and sometimes hard line on immigration have more in common with the right. In a campaign that has been singularly lacking in policy, the movement has landed at least one catchy proposal: a minimum monthly income of €780 for the poorest Italians, which is likely to strengthen its appeal among young voters.

Bad government, or no government

More than 800 kilometres south of Turin, in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, lies the town of Pomigliano d’Arco, another place left reeling by a rapidly shrinking Fiat factory. This is where Luigi di Maio, Five-Star’s 31-year-old leader and would-be prime minister, is standing for parliament. His opponent, a celebrity art critic notorious for his foul-mouthed tirades on Berlusconi’s TV channels, illustrates – to the point of caricature – the hostility Five-Star’s has elicited among Italy’s establishment parties. Among other things, Vittorio Sgarbi has described Di Maio as an “ignorant goat”, a “slimy worm” and a “fried fart”.

Blighted by poverty, unemployment and corruption, Italy’s ever-lagging south is Five-Star’s heartland and its best chance of scoring big on March 4. The party’s tussle with the right in a string of key southern seats will seal the outcome of the election, determining whether Berlusconi’s unwieldy coalition can command a majority in parliament. Five-Star’s refusal to form a coalition before Sunday’s vote means it cannot have a majority of its own.

Since the start of the campaign, Di Maio has been struggling to allay concerns that his inexperienced movement is unfit to rule. That’s where Rome and Turin were supposed to come in handy as the party’s showcases. But according to La Stampa’s Rossi, “far from being solid campaign arguments, both cities have become a problem for the movement.”

While media coverage has focused on the capital city, Turin is a more telling case. Five-Star mayor Virginia Raggi has endured a wretched time in Rome, but then so have most of her predecessors in what is widely regarded as an ungovernable city. Turin, in contrast, is seen as a well-run municipality with an efficient bureaucracy. In this respect, argues Rossi, Five-Star’s record so far is a damning failure.

“It’s not so much that they’re governing badly, but that they aren’t governing at all,” he says, denouncing the “paralysis” that has gripped the city. “They just don’t have the ability and the experience required to run a large city like Turin; one needs at least some understanding of public administration,” he adds.

‘At least they haven’t stolen anything’

Perceptions of Appendino’s rule have changed dramatically in the 19 months since her surprise election. Diligent and unshowy, in true Torinese fashion, Appendino got off to a bright start, topping the chart of Italy’s most popular big-city mayors by the end of her first year in office. But her fortunes took a turn for the worse last June after a woman died and 1,500 people were injured in a stampede at an open-air screening of the Champions League football final, in which Juventus were playing. The mayor is among 20 people being investigated for negligence.

Appendino has delivered in some areas. Her administration has taken pay cuts, pushed cycle lanes and bike-sharing schemes, and passed measures to curb pollution – at the cost of infuriating car owners in Italy’s automobile capital. Other flagship promises have been abandoned, including a pledge to halt the spread of supermarkets that are squeezing out shops like Maria’s. Instead, Appendino’s administration has already approved licenses for more supermarkets than her predecessor did in five years.

More damagingly for Five-Star, many in Turin’s poorest suburbs feel Appendino has done nothing to address the social divide she based her campaign on. “You can tell from conversations that disappointment is huge,” says the owner of a bar in via Cervino, in Turin’s north, who twice voted for the movement and won’t do so again. “Apart from the bicycles that are left to rust in the street, they’ve done nothing for the suburbs,” he adds.

Polls say Five-Star candidates are now trailing both the right and the left in Turin's parliamentary constituencies. The change of heart among voters illustrates the difficulties the party faces as it dabbles in government. For now, it is still “a collector of all those who are angry for different reasons,” says Rossi. “That’s good in opposition, but not when you’re in power,” he adds. But the good news for Five-Star, ahead of Sunday’s general election, is that there are still millions of very angry people in Italy who are willing to cast a protest vote – and go for the untested.

At Maria’s dairy shop, the upcoming election has triggered a row between the shopkeeper and a regular customer, Giuseppina Sette. Five-Star has proven it is “just as useless as the other parties”, says Maria. “At least they haven’t stolen anything,” counters the pensioner, who will vote for Di Maio’s party because “things need to change in this country”. It’s a view shared by 47-year-old Katia Cislaghi, a nearby grocer who is still mulling her vote. She wants Five-Star to agree to a coalition. “They have good ideas but need help from a more experienced partner,” she says. “It’s the only thing we haven’t tried yet.”

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