Vaffa Day: How many stars for Italy's populists?

Ten years ago Beppe Grillo launched his first Vaffa day (Vaffa means ‘fuck off’ in Italian). It was a disdainful gesture at corruption in the establishment. Nowadays, the whole of Europe is at it. Will Grillo win through, and if he does will he change anything?

Beppe Grillo on a roll
Tim Hedges
On 13 September 2017 04:15

I read that there is trouble in England concerning the pay of university vice-chancellors, and that one of them is on £400,000 a year. It is a sign of the difference between the two countries that here in Italy no one would be in the slightest bit surprised.

Managers of all kinds are in general poorly paid here, but every so often you find one with a remuneration package of eye watering proportions. I know a retired director of a partially state-run enterprise on a pension of €800,000 a year. It depends on who you know, whether you are in with the in-crowd.

After the war, the head of the merchant bank Mediobanca, Enrico Cuccia, created a new model for Italian industry. A small coterie of businessmen took directorships in each others’ businesses. Often there were cross shareholdings, with newspapers taking stakes in industrial companies, chemical companies with holdings in property firms.

Cuccia called his coterie the salotto buono, the drawing room of the good. A couple of dozen people, unelected, controlled industrial output. From this there arose in Italy a culture of secrecy, underhand dealings, state subsidies and protection of the incompetent. It was the worst thing that could possibly happen to the country.

An example is the banking system. Countless foreign banks wanted to invest in Italy, with its hundreds of small banks charging outrageous fees. They were protected from takeover, so standards were low, the management overpaid and incompetent. This is now a problem so serious Italy is claiming derogation from the EU rules to stop a financial collapse. If Barclays and Citibank had got in thirty years ago things would have improved.

The system began to decline with the move towards privatisation in the early 1990s and the arrival of Silvio Berlusconi. But very little happened to stop it, or the excesses of the favoured few. Many in the political class were found to be nest-feathering, too.

Around 2005 an anti-establishment comedian named Beppe Grillo came on to the scene. He wrote a blog which was the most popular in Italy and in the top five most read in Europe. Grillo wanted to do away with the political and industrial caste which looked after its own interests at the expense of the people.

Ten years ago he launched his first Vaffa day (Vaffa means ‘fuck off’ in Italian). Meetings were organised in various cities of people fed up with the rotten system. Informed by social media, thousands attended; the press did not report it. As his movement grew and the conspiracy of silence persisted, Grillo would address sometimes tens of thousands of people with the words ‘There’s nobody here!’

When 5-Star’s first MPs were elected, they refused to take all their salary, as a demonstration of disgust at the venality of the others. Italy has the highest paid MPs in Europe. This simple gesture made hundreds of thousands more flock to the 5-Star banner.

Grillo’s party now has 30 percent of the vote in Italy and provides the mayors of Rome and Turin. It has softened a bit, normalised perhaps, although it still decides party strategy by internet vote. In the eyes of many, their representatives are not representing them. 5-Star stands for honesty and transparency. It is a party for the young, for people who believe things can change for the better,

Amongst its new policies is for a guaranteed income for all citizens. In Italy there is no unemployment benefit (there is an insurance policy but companies in trouble often stop paying into it leaving the workforce with nothing). As people feel precarious in these difficult times it could be a vote winner.

Can it go further? Could 5-Star run the country, not just Rome and Turin? A major obstacle is that believing politicians from other parties to be dishonest, interested only in their self-preservation, 5-Star feel unable to go into coalition, which the proportional representation system requires to form a government.

If Grillo softens on this it might just be that party leader Luigi di Maio (under party rules Grillo cannot stand) becomes the next Prime Minister. He is 31.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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