Listening to Italy
On 12 April a strong political earthquake reverberated across Italy when Italians heard about the unexpected death of Gianroberto Casaleggio. The British press appeared not to notice. Only the on-line Independent and Mail announced his death in a short passage. The assumption following this omission is that the man was of no significance. Far from it. Nigel Farage called him a genius. Who was he?
This was the leader of the party that received the highest number of votes in the last, 2013 Italian General Election. It was not the everlasting Silvio Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia (Fi) won 21.56% of the vote, nor the premier Matteo Renzi whose Partito Democratico (Pd) netted 25.42%, but Gianroberto Casaleggio, whose Movimento Cinque Stelle, The Five Star Movement (M5S), received 44,981 more votes with a total of 8,689,168 or 25.55% of the poll. The Pd went on to be the governing party because of political alliances that made it the largest group. The winning group receives a premium of additional seats to boost its parliamentary stability. In any event Casaleggio’s position was that M5S would be compromised if it collaborated with other Italian politicians and parties (who he considered corrupt) to run the country. One of his powerful selling points was that Italian voters strongly agreed with his views on the endemic corruption.
Somewhat oddly, for two people with such a political following and power, neither Casaleggio nor his co-leader Beppe Grillo have ever put themselves up for election. Actually that’s not strictly true. Casaleggio was a candidate for Berlusconi’s Fi party in a 2004 local election. He was last of three candidates with seven votes. However he came across then, certainly during the political life of M5S, he was never a man feted for his charisma. Someone who worked closely with him, another IT specialist, said that they had in common the need to work in silence. Interestingly, no M5S candidates for any elected post, be it lower or upper house or mayor, can have previously stood for election for any of, what he considered to be tainted political parties. Casaleggio also believed that politics was not a career and “his” candidates could only stand for two terms.
The British press wrongly referred to M5S as Beppe Grillo’s party. Comedian Beppe Grillo is called the co-founder, but he worked as the mouthpiece of Casaleggio, who preferred to work quietly in the background. Shortly before his death Casaleggio entered a Milan clinic under the anonymity of an assumed name, so his demise seemed sudden. Not a dapper figure, he was very pale, thin, with voluminous long grey hair and a cap balanced incongruously on top. In retrospect the pallor and greatcoats did indicate someone either shy, ill or both.
M5S is not a party. It does not have party conferences as the UK or other European countries know them. But then neither does Berlusconi’s Fi; they have in common that both men work, or worked, as dictators. M5S can best be described as a brand, owned by Casaleggio Associates, run by Casaleggio himself as Managing Director. Perhaps he can be compared to the other dead IT innovator, Steve Jobs.
M5S formed itself around five star points: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, right of internet access and environmentalism. Its business mechanism is the internet, which Casaleggio believed would give direct democracy, which he saw as the development of representative democracy. He failed to see the contradiction behind this and his often criticised dictatorial methods. Casaleggio believed that within 40 or so years there would be a world-wide government or forum where all global decisions would be made by citizens over the internet.
The day to day business of the movement was disseminated by what was called “Beppe Grillo’s Blog” http://www.beppegrillo.it. Many decisions, from the choice of candidates to whether a parliamentarian was overstepping the mark, were subject to an internet vote of members. This seemingly democratic device was controlled by Casaleggio. He actually wrote the blog with, it appears now, the help of his son Davide.
The Italian political earthquake reverberated until the funeral a week later. Beppe Grillo was uncharacteristically speechless for days. Unable to cope with the loss of his leader it seemed as if he had not anticipated and planned for this inevitable day. That he was only the puppet became completely clear. Casaleggio had tried to promote his son to be a key player within M5S and recently had made a weak attempt to “abdicate” in favour of son Davide. One of the oddities of the Casaleggio brand is that elected members are not permitted to give press conferences and must only parrot the official line. Elected members have been voted out for giving their personal opinions in public. So obvious successors, Davide apart, were neither promoted or tolerated.
The stark truth of M5S’s position as a rudderless ship was articulated as soon as the initial shock had allowed members and of course, the political establishment, to take stock. There was talk of civil war within the Movement. The executive of the M5S includes three young men who hold positions, even though they were limited in extent by Casaleggio. But as they also hold office as members of the parliament they can, (and have), advertise their presence by speaking in their parliamentary roles. This trio of Luigi De Maio (aged 29), Roberto Fico (41) and Alessandro Di Battista (37) were seen together, like the three monkeys, in press photos during the mourning period. Luigi de Maio, thought by Casaleggio senior to be pushy, has been capitalising on his parliamentary position as Deputy Speaker of the Lower House to publicise himself as the future leader. He quickly visited three capital cities, including London. La Stampa reported that both Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage snubbed him. UKIP is in the same Euro group, EFDD, Europe of Freedom & Direct Democracy as M5S. La Stampa pictured him with a rather uncomfortable looking Jeremy Corbyn.
On 25 April Corriere della Sera ran a long positive article about Davide Casaleggio. Briefly, his mother is British, he graduated in business economics followed by an MA in London. Corriere’s staff writer, Marco Imariso, believes that Davide considers himself to be a manager, not a politician. But it is obvious that he is a also tactician. He has capitalised swiftly on two points. Importantly in a digitally-managed brand he holds all the passwords. He also lives in Milan, rather than Rome, where the trio are centred. Significantly he registered the domain name http://www.ilblogdellestelle.it (literally: the blog of the M5S) back in November 2015. He has now transferred the official business from http://www.beppegrillo.it to this new domain. The implications are clear. He is in control. And he is not immediately sharing it with either Beppe Grillo or the executive trio. The way ahead is not at all clear and will have wider implications for Italian politics.