Back in June, on the day of Rome’s mayoral elections, I asked whether mayor-to-be Virginia Raggi was going to deliver the change Italy’s capital needed so badly. Years of poor governance have caused the degradation of Rome’s public services, while previous administrations have been involved in a far-reaching network of illegal deals. The crisis climaxed with the resignation of the relatively innocuous mayor Ignazio Marino, prompting a new cycle of electoral campaigning, which ended with Raggi’s historic victory.
Only three months have passed since her election, yet the answer to my question seems already quite clear: Virginia Raggi is, indeed, just a pretty face.
Let me be clear: this is not a judgement of Raggi’s competency and record so far – it is still too early for a comprehensive assessment. Yes, she has held only a handful of committee meetings since her election. Yes, her first assessore al bilancio(the budget secretary of her administration) resigned after less than two months, and his successor was revoked within 24 hours of his appointment for irregularities in the nomination process. Yes, Rome’s rubbish collection system stalls periodically, while the member of the administration responsible for it is currently involved in a convoluted legal dispute. Yes, Raggi has already had a minor breakdown and called off all her official engagements for a weekend, claiming she needs “family time”. But any other candidate would have encountered similar challenges – managing the city is notoriously an uphill struggle, even for experienced leaders.
The deeper reason why Raggi can never be anything but “just a pretty face”, and why she will ultimately be unable to deliver the changes she promised, rests on the nature of her “party”, the Movimento 5 Stelle (5 Star Movement, M5S), and its secretive, hierarchical and extremely centralised internal organisation. It has recently re-emerged that Raggi, along with other M5S leaders, has had to sign a contract, in which she pledged to promote the party line and follow the instruction of the M5S’s leaders, or else pay a hefty €150,000 fine for “damaging the M5S’s image” and resign. Since the beginning of her tenure, she has been “supported” by a group of four high-profile members of the M5S, whose job is to advise and guide her judgement in “complex matters”. Needless to say, no Roman citizen has ever elected such group. I pointed out before that Raggi would have very limited room for manoeuvre as Rome’s mayor, yet the real restrictions on her autonomy are emerging only now: Raggi’s agency is seriously compromised.
A recent example is the decision on whether to put forward a bid for the 2024 Olympics in Rome, on which every candidate except Raggi had a clear position before the election. Only after Beppe Grillo, the comedian who founded and leads the M5S, declared the official party line, did Raggi take a firm stance not to support the bid. Raggi is clearly just the young and fresh face of the M5S – a mere façade – and that by simply associating with such “party”, she hopelessly accepts her role as a puppet in the hands of the Movement’s leaders.
As much as this sounds absurd and antidemocratic to readers abroad, it might not represent as much of a problem to Rome’s citizens. Romans knew, when they voted Virginia Raggi, that they were really voting for a leviathan-like group-thinking organisation which would dictate their new mayor’s every policy. Even before the election, it was clear that Raggi’s greatest challenge would be to find a balance between implementing decisive measures to end Rome’s crisis and adhering to the M5S’s position. This challenge has only been exacerbated by the fact that Raggi has been portrayed since the mayoral campaign as the M5S’s poster-child, the success story to prove that the Movement had reached political maturity and that it could legitimately take its role of main opposition and future governing party.
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As more and more controversies engulf Raggi’s administration, the M5S’s ratings are taking hit after hit, a drop that has already been dubbed “the Raggi Effect”. Other parties have been involved in similar difficulties in the past, but the M5S is disproportionately suffering from one mayor’s woes. It would be tempting to blame mainstream media for the unfairly negative coverage – and Luigi di Maio, the “institutional” face of the M5S and vice-president of the Camera (Italy’s lower parliamentary chamber) has already been very vocal in this respect.
Yet the real reason is subtler, and it has to do with the Movement’s self-portrayal as a “directly democratic” group whose origin is deeply entrenched with social media. The M5S was born as a web community subscribing to the ideas of comedian Beppe Grillo, and it prides itself of crowdsourcing both its policy ideas and its candidates. As such, the presence of the group on social media has always been heavier than any other Italian political organisation. Whether the M5S model anticipates future developments in party politics is open for debate. Nonetheless the social nature of the Movement constitutes its main weakness, as the Raggi Effect shows. The M5S’s constant need for the social media spotlight makes it vulnerable to indiscriminate criticism and mockery, which is arguably even more damaging than traditional reporting. Unfiltered proliferation of less-than-accurate accounts on the crisis of Raggi’s administration mean that it is difficult and frustrating for the average voter to make sense of the situation. This further erodes the Movement’s credibility, as its members devote equal energy to rebutting legitimate and illegitimate accusations.
Only in the politics of social media can truth acquire such fluidity, by which fact-checked claims have no more value than questionable speculations. The M5S has, so far, benefited from this system by reaching potential voters in a way that is impossible for traditional parties. Yet by the same power of viral statements and political storytelling that has played to its advantage so far, the Movement is now at risk of self-destruction.
The M5S is also paying the price of recklessly exploiting social media’s fascination with symbolic figures. The portrayal of Virginia Raggi as a model of honesty and transparency during the electoral campaign meant that the smallest cracks in her public image resulted in a sizeable loss of credibility for the Movement as a whole. In this context, it is ironic that the very idealisation of Raggi as a symbol for the M5S necessarily destined the young mayor to fail, as she tried to fulfil unrealistic expectations while battling with the reality of administering a city that never leaves any reputation spotless. It doesn’t help that Raggi’s social media savviness is at best intermittent: her recent rant against journalists waiting outside her home reveals both her fragility under pressure and her inability to self-censor on social networks. Placing such high bets on a relatively uncertain outcome – Raggi’s success in Rome – has been a mistake that might cost the Movement the legitimacy it craves.
Nonetheless, the M5S still has plenty of chances to redeem itself in Rome and in the rest of the country. But there is a deeper lesson to learn from the case of Raggi’s faltering beginnings and from the sudden end of the M5S political honeymoon with the Italian public, a lesson that indeed applies to most populist movements, from Podemos in Spain to the SNP in Scotland. As more such groups conquer a larger proportion of the electorate and come closer to real power, they will have to deal with the same basic contradiction that is spelling the crisis of the M5S: the difficulty of reconciling their projected image of “people’s parties” – full of crowdsourced candidates, social media policy groups and appeals to transparency and direct democracy – with the sinister sect-like mechanisms of hierarchical powers, centralisation and forced unity that shape their internal organisation. The public scrutiny that populist movements face upon entering the battleground of real politics risks revealing this fundamental hypocrisy, and, depending on the public’s determination to ignore it, compromises their credibility.