Italy populists suffer growing pains with online democracy

Italy populists suffer growing pains with online democracy
Former Italian premier Matteo Renzi delivers his speech during the Democratic Party (PD) national convention in Rome, on Sunday. (AP)
Updated 09 April 2017

Italy populists suffer growing pains with online democracy

Italy populists suffer growing pains with online democracy

ROME: It aspires to govern Italy but the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) is suffering growing pains linked to the model of direct democracy on which it is run, analysts say.
Using an Internet portal called “Rousseau” after the 18th-Century French philosopher, M5S uses online votes of members to decide its policies, draft legislation and candidates.
Created by the late Gianrobert Caleggio, a computer expert who co-founded the movement with comic Beppe Grillo in 2009, the platform is presented by the party as a reflection of its unique commitment to grassroots democracy and a new politics untainted by Italy’s long tradition of behind-the-scenes, self-serving deals among an exclusive political class.
But it has become increasingly criticized, notably by former members, for its lack of transparency and the party leadership’s tight control over how it works.
And as M5S seeks to fight an ever larger number of elections at every level, its use in the selection of candidates, typically on the basis of one short video post, has also come under scrutiny.
Virginia Raggi, 37, was elected mayor of Rome in June 2016 after being plucked from relative obscurity to join a long list of 200 potential M5S candidates.
The photogenic lawyer shone on the small screen and won the selection battle.
But in office, her lack of experience has been exposed as the new administration has lurched from one crisis to another.
With little sign of the movement demonstrating it can address the capital’s myriad problems, this has led to tensions between Raggi and Grillo, who has been branded a control freak tyrant by rivals in Italy’s mainstream parties.
In Genoa, Grillo’s home town, Marika Cassimatis topped the movement’s poll of activists only to be struck off the list when the leader deemed her positions on certain issues, and some of her backers, to be “contrary to the principles of the movement.”
He then compounded the damage caused by that incident by adding on his blog: “I’d ask anyone who does not understand this decision just to trust to me.”
That proved to be the final straw for some activists who quit the movement in its first significant defections.
“What the M5S shows us is that electronic democracy does not work, notably because it can be subject to all sorts of manipulation, either technological or ideological,” said Leonardo Morlina, a political science professor in Rome.
“The Genoa example was symptomatic. We don’t really know why the choice of candidates was not approved. We just have Beppe Grillo’s explanation to go on, which poses a problem for internal party democracy.”