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Challenging the party system: The Five Star Movement in comparative perspective

The Italian Five Star Movement (FSM) represents one of the most significant party political innovations of recent decades. Launched officially in 2009, the FSM had originally come into being a few years before as a group of followers of the comedian Beppe Grillo—resembling something between a fan club and a web marketing experiment. Its results in its first competitive national elections in 2013 represented one of the most stunning European electoral success stories of the post-war period, becoming the largest party in the Italian party system. In 2018 it entered government as part of a ‘populist’ coalition with the more right-wing League, an experiment that was replaced, a year later, by a coalition between the FSM and the centre-left Democratic Party. Success has not just been registered at the national level, moreover, as the FSM has had its candidates elected as the mayors of several cities, including Rome, Turin and Parma.

The significance of the FSM, however, goes beyond its electoral successes. The party has introduced innovations in political language and leadership style, through its unusual duo, Beppe Grillo, the voice onstage, and Gianroberto Casaleggio, the web marketing entrepreneur behind the scenes. The party’s innovative organizational model, heavily relying on online tools, has also been scrutinized by political scientists and communication experts alike. The eclectic ideological profile allowing the party to switch alliances from a far right to a centre-left government partner within weeks is also remarkable, as is its original and somewhat random pattern of political elite recruitment. 

This has led political scientists to wonder whether the FSM is an isolated and possibly short-lived experiment which will be forgotten in a few years, or the harbinger of a veritable transformation of party politics that will affect the rest of Europe and beyond.

In the present collection, we gather several contributions exploring the FSM from different points of view: its electorate, ideological flexibility, European alliances, and the effectiveness of its original organizational solutions to address the problem of party legitimacy. Some of these contributions focus on the party as a case study, others frame their analyses in a comparative perspective. We believe they represent important contributions to the debate on the challenges contemporary party systems face, of which the Five Star Movement represents one of the most powerful examples.

Research Article