The mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, is in deep trouble.
In recent months, Raggi has been caught in a series of corruption scandals. But, contrary to expectations, her problems are hardly going to trouble her political party—the Five Star Movement.
Since her election in June 2016, Raggi, a 38-year-old lawyer from Rome, has been subject to harsh critiques. In December, police arrested one of Raggi’s closest collaborators, Raffaele Marra, on corruption charges and are now investigating the mayor for abuse of office.
Two more members of her city council resigned after the scandals broke. One of them is Salvatore Romeo, who signed three life insurance policies of which Raggi is the beneficiary.
Later this year, as soon as the interim government led by Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni approves a long-awaited electoral reform law, Italians will vote for their next parliament. As of January, the Five Star Movement was the second most popular party (expected to win 26.4 percent of the vote nationally, according to a poll by WinPoll for the Huffington Post) after the Democratic Party (at 28.8 percent).
At first glance, it may seem that Raggi has alienated voters from the Five Star Movement. After the first scandal broke, the party did fall by several percentage points in national polls. But those who think that these scandals will harm the movement’s performance in upcoming national elections are missing a crucial point: scandals do not necessarily decrease popular support for a political party. The movement is likely to distract its supporters from the scandals with a mixture of media bashing and authoritarian posturing.
In the aftermath of a scandal, political actors can demonstrate resiliency, writes Brandon Rottinghaus, associate professor of political science at the University of Houston. Addressing the problem firmly can enable politicians not just to survive, but to continue their careers with even greater support than they had prior to the scandal.
In recent years, we have seen that no matter how severe a scandal might be, voters are likely to support the political platform of a movement or party with strong social roots. The best recent example is Donald Trump. Despite facing numerous scandals throughout the 2016 campaign—including a leaked tape in which he boasted of sexually assaulting women—he was elected president of the United States.
Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is another example of a politician who survived multiple corruption, tax fraud and sex scandals. At the age of 80, he is now considering running in Italy’s upcoming parliamentary elections.
Beyond political resiliency through scandals, the Five Star Movement may be able to withstand the latest turmoil because its founder, Beppe Grillo, has spent the last two months promoting a narrative that Raggi is a naïve victim who is making amends by admitting her mistakes.
Grillo, a former comedian, founded the Five Star Movement in 2009 with entrepreneur Davide Casaleggio. Five Star is a populist, anti-establishment, anti-Euro movement, whose members often refuse to call it a political party to distance themselves from the political elite. Through his blog, Grillo has a direct line of communication with the group’s supporters. In early February, Grillo published an aggressive post written in “Romanesco,” the regional Roman dialect, which politicians do not usually use when addressing the public. Grillo took an authoritarian tone, writing, “Beware … No one can touch the mayor of Rome. The people have voted [for her] and do not regret it.”
Threatening those who dare criticize a political leader is not appropriate for a movement that aspires to become the ruling party of an advanced democracy like Italy.
Yet, Five Star politicians often use threats to intimidate their opponents. Luigi Di Maio, vice president of the Chamber of Deputies (of the two houses of the parliament) and a likely Five Star candidate in the upcoming national elections, threatened to file a lawsuit for defamation against Emiliano Fittipaldi, the journalist from Espresso who exposed one of the corruption scandals.
Finally, the movement is playing the “fake news” card, often dismissing its scandals as creations of the media. For example, after it was reported that Roberta Lombardi, a Five Star member of parliament, leaked information on one of the scandals, she wrote on Facebook that this was “fake news.”
Fake news has become a crucial issue in the United States under the Trump administration. Trump and his advisers often accuse US media of creating “fake news,” to discredit critical coverage of the administration. In fact, Trump and some of his advisers have often issued false statements, including references to non-existing terror attacks.
But an ongoing police investigation in Italy is not fake news. The Five Star Movement should not exploit the term to distract the Italian people from serious investigations into wrongdoing.
The Movement might aspire to be anti-establishment, but the recent scandals have shown that it is not immune to corruption. Nonetheless, Grillo has nothing to worry about, because the scandals are unlikely to affect his party. Voters of the Five Star Movement love its political platform and hate the Italian establishment, represented by the ruling Democratic Party.
Virginia Raggi may be in deep trouble, but opponents of the movement cannot expect to defeat it by hoping that the scandals will dissuade people from voting for the party. If Raggi ultimately succumbs to her scandals, the Five Star Movement will simply replace her and move on, none the worse for wear.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons