In response to economic pressure, government gridlock and recent scandals, Italian voters have become increasingly dissatisfied with their political establishment in recent years, as exhibited by lower voter turnout, decreased political party membership and a decline in political activism. Voters have begun to look past traditional parties for new groups that will represent their interests in government. One such group is the Five Star Movement (M5S), a populist party led by Beppe Grillo that aims to devolve responsibility for decision making from government to citizens; however, while the party effectively identifies underrepresented citizen interests, it lacks the resources and structures of traditional Italian political parties.
M5S has dedicated itself to increasing citizen participation through direct democratic means, keeping the price of participation low. As a result, M5S organizes extensively online and holds online primary elections so all voters with internet access can participate, thereby increasing accessibility and improving the party’s responsiveness.
As a new political party in a country whose population has been losing interest in politics, M5S faced political and financial hurdles. Maximizing limited resources, Beppe Grillo and M5S identified online organizing as an effective approach to connect with and engage activists and voters, without needing a regional committee structure or large amounts of funding. Moreover, organizing online made it easier for voters to participate within the party. One important tool M5S used for online organizing was Meetup groups, which allowed supporters to find and connect with like-minded individuals online, and then organize local meeting groups or organize for local elections. These Meetups formed the backbone of the organization by empowering local Meetup organizers to be activists.
The M5S blog serves as the party’s online headquarters and main platform for sharing party news and updates. The party uses web-based direct democracy and online organizing tools to provide an economical and accessible platform for the party to communicate with and engage supporters. Its online presence has allowed M5S to cut traditional expenses — such as large national and sub-national committee structures — in favor of cheaper online organizing, while also making it easier for citizens to participate in Italian politics. Heading into the 2013 Italian Parliamentary elections, M5S took full advantage of its online structure by holding an online primary election, the first in Italian history. Voting was open online for three days in early December 2012 through the campaign’s main website. Only a small number of party members were eligible and had registered to vote in the primary — voters needed to upload identification documentation online ahead of the election — but they could vote from anywhere with internet access. Over 1,400 candidates declared for the 945 available seats, and each candidate received a personal page on the party’s website where they could post their campaign information for voters. Voters could cast up to three votes. However, despite M5S having over 200,000 members, only slightly more than 31,000 registered to vote and fewer than 21,000 members actually voted. In comparison, 3.1 million voters — around 30 percent of the coalition’s total support in the 2013 general election — participated in an open primary held by the center-left coalition Italy, Common Good in November and December 2012 to select their candidate for prime minister.
Although turnout for M5S’s December 2012 online primary was low, the party’s innovative use of technology to encourage engagement and intra-party participation paid off during the 2013 parliamentary election, when M5S won 25 percent of the vote nationally, becoming Italy’s most powerful opposition group.
M5S advocates in favor of direct democracy for both Italy and Europe, criticizes establishment politicians and parties for government gridlock and alleged cronyism, and claims its direct democratic procedures are more transparent than parties’ traditional methods. However, Beppe Grillo maintains significant individual control over the party. Interested candidates for parliament on the M5S ticket must meet strict candidacy restrictions. Moreover, holding elections over the internet is not without potential technical pitfalls or information security risks. M5S members interested in participating in the 2012 elections first had to submit identification documents for verification through the website, a potentially daunting first step. Furthermore, voting was conducted through the party’s website without third-party monitoring, meaning the voting process was conducted with limited transparency and extensive trust that results would not be tampered by outside influences.
While M5S worked to create policies and agree on intra-party procedures through online polling, once in Parliament, the party began to splinter and MPs who veered away from the party were punished by Grillo, in direct defiance of M5S’s established procedures and norms.
M5S focuses heavily on using technology to engage voters and increase the accessibility of party functions such as primary voting and policy development. This approach to direct democracy has helped the party grow its membership and electoral support, despite limited resources. Moreover, M5S’s meteoric rise in electoral support demonstrates that political parties can use innovative approaches to ICTs and online organizing to better engage with voters on issues that affect them.