Italy’s 5Stars struggle to reboot after losing online platform

The digital democratic trailblazer is stalled over a dispute with the manager of its online voting platform.

Italy’s 5Stars struggle to reboot after losing online platform

ROME — It’s not easy being a democratic trailblazer. 

Italy’s 5Star Movement arrived as a disruptive political force in parliament in 2013, later vaulting into power in 2018 on the back of a digital platform that expanded the decision-making ranks of a traditional political party. 

The movement pledged to offer direct digital democracy — major decisions would be put to votes on a digital platform. Members, not just elected representatives, could vote. The 5Stars base of activists would have its say on policy, electoral candidates and strategic decisions. 

The unusual approach was a great leap forward in the eyes of techno-utopians, who saw in the movement’s sudden rise an egalitarian alternative to traditional politics. And in a country where trust in political parties and institutions had been eroded by decades of corruption and abuse of power, the system offered a refreshing, democratic alternative.

But three years after they came to power, the 5Stars are parting ways with the pioneering online voting platform, known as Rousseau

It’s an acrimonious divorce that has spurred an identity crisis within the 5Stars. Decision-making is paralyzed, blocking the formal confirmation of former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as the new 5Stars leader, and leaving the movement rudderless. And a planned relaunch of the movement is in danger of being derailed. 

It’s a trajectory that may serve as a cautionary tale to other anti-establishment movements tempted to dabble in digital democracy, such as the Czech Republic’s Pirate Party, which has surged to the head of the polls ahead elections this fall. 

Digital direct democracy has “huge potential,” Conte said on Facebook in April, announcing the decision to ditch the platform, officially dubbed “Rousseau.” “But technology is never neutral.”

Rousseau, meet 5Stars

The Rousseau platform was gifted to the 5Star Movement by its co-founder and visionary, Gianroberto Casaleggio, on his death in 2016. 

The online system was welcomed as a powerful tool for direct democracy, offering groundbreaking bottom-up participation in debate and decision making.

Initially, security was a major issue, with hacks plaguing the site almost weekly, leading to a rewrite of the code in 2019. In a 2021 Solonian Institute for Democracy review, Rousseau earned a top-five ranking on a list of global digital democracy initiatives

But the 5Stars faced a moment of reckoning earlier this year when deciding whether to back a national unity government under Mario Draghi. Movement members voted in favor, even though Draghi was a distinctly establishment figure within Italy. Dozens of 5Stars members bucked their members’ will and opposed Draghi anyway, fracturing the movement, which remains the biggest parliamentary group in Draghi’s government. 

Conte, the incumbent prime minister who was forced out of office in February in favor of Draghi, agreed in March to “re-found” the 5Stars. Previously Conte had no official political affiliation but was brought into office by the 5Stars. 

Last month, Conte revealed 5Stars and the Rousseau Association would be separating, blaming the company managing Rousseau, which he said was unwilling to meet his “prerequisites” of “transparency and clear distinction of roles.”

Digital divorce

The fallout between party and platform stems from a management dispute rather than any technological issues. 

The Rousseau platform is overseen by the Rousseau Association and Casaleggio’s web marketing consultant son, Davide Casaleggio.

Conte said the new 5Stars must guarantee that technical management of the digital platform is separate from the political leadership. While external parties “can be trusted with a technical role,” he said on Facebook, political leadership must come from elected members “to avoid external influences and interference.”

According to some 5Stars members, the Rousseau Association wouldn’t accept a role of simply technical service provider. 

One 5Stars staffer said the Rousseau team behaved as a separate political entity, organizing its own political events across Italy with the movement’s money, controlling blog posts and pushing to have a say on votes.

Daniele Albertazzi, a political researcher at the University of Birmingham tweeted: “Note to self: if I ever start my own political party, it may be a bad idea to subcontract keeping in touch with members to a private company (which, inevitably, has its own agenda).”

But Rousseau allies, such as former 5Stars MP Alessandro Di Battista, claimed the hostility to Casaleggio was based on his insistence on sticking to a rule created when 5Star was in an embryonic phase —parliamentarians should serve at most two terms. 

It was a rule aimed at eliminating a perennial political class. But it would now force many 5Stars MPs, especially the most senior, out of politics — and back into the job market — at the end of this legislature, which will occur in June 2023, at the latest. 

“If Casaleggio supported an extension to the two mandates rule, there wouldn’t be an issue,” Di Battista said. 

There is also resentment from many 5Stars MPs that they are contractually obliged to pay €300 monthly for Rousseau’s upkeep.

The Rousseau Association declined to comment on the split. But writing on the 5Stars blog (a demonstration of power play in and of itself), the association claimed many MPs have reneged on payment obligations, causing the company to run up “enormous debts,” leading to layoffs and suspending voting services.  

The company claims it is owed €450,000 euros in back pay.

Conte has promised the 5Stars will settle its debts, and 5Stars insiders insist the real sum owed is much lower, as many parliamentarians have defected or been expelled. But in the meantime, Casaleggio is refusing to hand over membership lists, citing data protection laws that oblige him to give the data only to the 5Stars’ legal representative. 

The judicial system has offered little clarity, with a court in Cagliari, Sardinia, failing to identify a legal representative for the 5Stars, leaving the 5Stars and Casaleggio to likely find a financial settlement between them.

Conveniently for Casaleggio, the 5Stars have been without a formal leader since 2019, when Luigi Di Maio quit. Members haven’t yet voted to confirm Conte as leader and interim leader Vito Crimi’s mandate has run out.

“It’s a gridlock,” said one former communications staffer. “They need to vote on Rousseau in order to get rid of Rousseau.”

Essentially, without a means to poll its members, the 5Star Movement stalled, upending Conte’s plans to relaunch the movement and get members to vote in May on his new statute and charter for the movement. 

The alternative — effectively restarting the movement by signing up the voting members again — poses numerous challenges. One 5Stars MP, Francesco Berti, wrote on his blog “Thinking of creating a new platform from scratch is impossible: changing direct democracy platforms is not like changing telephone operators.”

Meanwhile, Conte is losing time in preparing for election battles in major cities, such as Rome and Milan, in September and October. The 5Stars has lost about half of its support since 2018, according to recent polls, and could be almost wiped out in some major cities in the upcoming elections.

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For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

To add insult to injury, the Rousseau Association is offering its platform to emerging movements abroad and domestically, including independents competing against the 5Stars in the fall.

It’s unclear whether other groups are clamoring to adopt Rousseau, however. The Yellow Jackets movement in France was offered the platform in 2019 and declined.

Still, for all the current turbulence, the 5Stars changed the conversation on digital democracy, creating a debate internationally around direct participation. It’s a concept the movement is unlikely to fully relinquish. 

“Direct democracy is an integral part of the movement,” said Di Battista, the former MP.