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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Italy’s Meloni begins tricky government talks after election win

Italian far-right leader Giorgia Meloni and her allies on Tuesday began what is set to be a weeks-long process of forming a new government, with crises looming on several fronts.

Italy's Meloni begins tricky government talks after election win

Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, which triumphed in Sunday’s elections, has no experience of power but must assemble a cross-party team to tackle sky-high inflation and energy prices, and relations with a wary Europe.

The 45-year-old is hoping to be the first woman to lead Italy as prime minister, but needs her allies, Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party and former Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, for a majority in parliament.

The division of the top jobs – notably economy, foreign affairs, the defence and interior ministries – will always be political but now, more than ever, “will have to reflect areas of expertise”, the Stampa daily noted.

President Sergio Mattarella will begin consultations on who should lead the new government only once the Senate and Chamber presidents have been elected by parliament, which meets on October 13th.

In the past, it has taken anything between four and 12 weeks for a new administration to take office.

But the first deadline for action is coming up fast, with Italy due to submit its draft plan for next year’s budget to Brussels by October 15th.

READ ALSO: The five biggest challenges facing Italy’s new government

The parties have said they want to make major changes, with a manifesto promising to slash taxes, roll back welfare, and “revise” the terms of Italy’s recovery fund agreement with Brussels – potentially putting the rest of the deal, worth a total of almost 200 billion euros to Italy, at risk.

EU economy commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said he urged “the next Italian government to ensure that this opportunity is seized”, saying the fund was key to putting Italy on a path to “strong and durable growth”.

Agnese Ortolani, senior Europe analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said she expected Meloni “to continue to reassure the markets by picking a non-controversial figure for the role of finance minister”.

“She will also want to avoid reputational damage by nominating someone who is not perceived as credible by the markets,” she said in a note.

READ ALSO: Doubts rise over ‘loose cannon’ Salvini after Italy’s election

Meloni’s allies have been pitching for heavyweight positions, Salvini wanting his old job as interior minister back, and Berlusconi eyeing president of the Senate.

Their parties’ disappointing performance in the polls, however, with neither reaching 10 percent while Brothers of Italy’s secured 26 percent, means Meloni may already be planning to sideline them.

League leader Matteo Salvini (L) and Fratelli d’Italia leader Giorgia Meloni are set to form a government together following the election. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Salvini and Berlusconi do not see eye-to-eye with Meloni on several fronts, including on Russia and public spending to relieve the cost of living crisis.

With all the potential friction ahead, winning the elections “was almost the easy part”, commented Luciano Fontana, chief editor of the Corriere della Sera daily.

Berlusconi downplayed concerns he would rock the boat Tuesday, claiming his party was ready to make compromises “in the country’s interests”.

His ally Antonio Tajani, a former European parliament president, is tipped as possible foreign minister, an appointment which could both appease Berlusconi and assuage international fears that Meloni’s Eurosceptic populist party plans to pick fights with Brussels.

Salvini may prove more difficult. He is currently on trial for allegedly abusing his powers as interior minister in 2019 to block migrants at sea, which some say could rule him out returning to the job.

“It won’t be an easy relationship. It’s likely that (Salvini) will be given a more marginal role in the government than he wants,” Sofia Ventura, political sciences professor at Bologna University, told the foreign press association in Rome.

“Defusing Salvini” without sparking a backlash that could weaken the government is “Meloni’s first test”, the Repubblica daily said.