Tactical triumph or road to ruin for Italy’s Five Star?

Italy's populist Five Star Movement has thrown down the gauntlet to the government in an unexpected political manoeuvre that could not only endanger a bill allowing gay civil unions but risks crippling the party, experts say.

Tactical triumph or road to ruin for Italy's Five Star?
Luigi Di Maio, the heir apparent to the Five Star Movement, and founder Beppe Grillo. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

The anti-establishment party had promised Prime Minister Matteo Renzi it would support the bill legalising gay relationships.

But in an unexpected about-turn, this week it refused to green-light a motion to speed up the draft law's adoption, opening the door to a series of wrecking amendments by opponents.

Enraged grassroots supporters accused the party known as M5S of betraying their wishes in order to spite Renzi's centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

“The civil union bill was an unmissable moment to put Renzi in difficulty,” Franco Pavoncello, political science professor at John Cabot University in Rome, told AFP, though he warned the M5S could face “fallout” over the perceived betrayal.

Italy is the last major country in Western Europe not to offer gay civil unions. Close ties with the Vatican have sunk all previous attempts. This time the bill has met more fierce Catholic opposition over its allowing gay couples to adopt under certain circumstances.

M5S, founded in 2009 by Italy's famous acerbic comic Beppe Grillo, celebrated a shock success in the 2013 general election when it snapped up 25.5 percent of the vote, becoming the second biggest political force behind the PD.

Grillo, 67, announced last year that he was taking his bushy beard and trademark rants back to showbiz. His name has gone from the Five Star logo and he brought a new stand-up routine to Rome this week.

'Jackals, traitors, cowards'

His sharp-suited heir apparent, Luigi Di Maio, 29, defended M5S's political move on Twitter, saying it was protecting parliamentary debate – a line which sparked catcalls from Internet users who branded the party “jackals”, “traitors” and “cowards”.

Gay rights groups were also furious, with protesters holding a sit-in outside Grillo's show in the Italian capital.

“It was a tactical move against the PD, but they (M5S) also want to arrive at the local elections without angering the right”, where votes are up for grabs, said Francesco Maesano, Five Star expert for La Stampa daily.

Political commentator Andrea Scanzi described the move as “cutting off your balls to spite your wife”.

“If they vote for the bill they clash with half of their electorate. If they don't vote for it they make the country miss a great chance to be less bigoted,” he said in Il Fatto Quotidiano.

Guido Moltedo, founder of online political magazine Ytali, told AFP the movement was “just like the scorpion in the fable” where he stings and kills the frog carrying him across a river because, despite his promises, he cannot help himself.

The party, born as a protest group, won votes from across the political spectrum with its platform against corruption and in favour of a euro-membership referendum – and refuses to make pacts with parties on the right or left.

Need to choose sides

The party's premise was that decisions should emerge from an egalitarian exchange of ideas by members on the Internet, but in fact the movement's “guru” Gianroberto Casaleggio dictates the party line, experts say.

The movement has expelled anyone who would broker deals, hampering its own attempts to secure significant policy results in parliament.

“How long can they remain without choosing sides on key issues? I don't think very long. What they are doing (over civil unions) is very dangerous and they risk losing swathes of voters,” Moltedo said.

Piergiorgio Corbetta, research director at Bologna's Cattaneo Institute and author of a book on M5S, said Grillo's dream of “direct democracy” had “proved an unattainable utopia”, and the party would struggle without him.

“The Five Star movement is a child of Grillo, his personality and communication skills. It's likely to slip into a rapid decline. We've seen it here, it's listing,” he said.

A poll by the Euromedia Institute this week showed the movement still has 24.5 percent of voter intentions but is slowly losing ground to Renzi's PD, which currently stands at 32 percent.

Its strength will be tested this year at local elections in Rome, though many have warned winning the mayorship could be a poisoned chalice, given scandal-hit Rome's problems.

“I hope for their sake they don't win, or they'll find themselves with an unmanageable hot potato,” Corbetta said.

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Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Just weeks after going on trial in a case brought by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano was back in court on Wednesday facing allegations of defamation lodged by Meloni's deputy, Matteo Salvini.

Second Italian minister takes anti-mafia reporter Saviano to court

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini, whose far-right League party is a key member of Meloni’s coalition, is suing the journalist for calling him the “minister of the criminal underworld” in a social media post in 2018.

In November, Saviano went on trial in a case brought by Meloni for calling her a “bastard” in 2020 over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

READ ALSO: Press freedom fears as Italian PM Meloni takes Saviano to trial

Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but won September elections on a promise to curb mass migration.

Saviano, known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, regularly clashes with Italy’s far-right and says the trials are an attempt to intimidate him.

He faces up to three years in prison if convicted in either trial.

“I think it is the only case in Western democracies where the executive asks the judiciary to lay down the boundaries within which it is possible to criticise it,” Saviano said in a declaration in court on Wednesday.

He said he was “blatantly the victim of intimidation by lawsuit”, on trial “for making my opinion, my thoughts, public”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about press freedom in Italy

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the suits to be scrapped. Meloni refused in November, despite criticism that her position of power makes it an unfair trial.

Armed guard

Saviano has lived under police protection since revealing the secrets of the Naples mafia in 2006.

But when Salvini was appointed interior minister in a previous government in June 2018, he suggested he might scrap Saviano’s armed guard.

The writer reacted on Facebook, saying Salvini “can be defined ‘the minister of the criminal underworld’,” an expression he said was coined by anti-fascist politician Gaetano Salvemini to describe a political system which exploited voters in Italy’s poorer South.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia author Saviano won’t be ‘intimidated’ by Salvini

He accused Salvini of having profited from votes in Calabria to get elected senator, while failing to denounce the region’s powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia and focusing instead on seasonal migrants.

Salvini’s team are expected to reject any claim he is soft on the mafia.

Saviano’s lawyer said he will call as a witness the current interior minister Matteo Piantedosi, who at the time was in charge of evaluating the journalist’s police protection.

The next hearing was set for June 1st.

Watchdogs have warned of the widespread use in Italy of SLAPPS, lawsuits aimed at silencing journalists or whistleblowers.

Defamation through the media can be punished in Italy with prison sentences from six months to three years, but the country’s highest court has urged lawmakers to rewrite the law, saying jail time for such cases was unconstitutional.

Saviano is also being sued by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano in a civil defamation case brought in 2020, before Sangiuliano joined the cabinet.

A ruling in that case could come in the autumn. If he loses that case Saviano may have to pay up to 50,000 euros in compensation, his lawyer told AFP.

Italy ranked 58th in the 2022 world press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, one of the lowest positions in western Europe.