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Analysis: Is the party over for Five Star’s leader?

His was a stellar rise to the top, leading Italy's populists into power for the first time and becoming essentially the nation's joint leader. But angel-faced Luigi Di Maio's fortunes have since taken a tumble

Analysis: Is the party over for Five Star's leader?
Five Star leader Luigi di Maio. Photo: TIZIANA FABI / AFP

One month ago, the leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) took to the balcony of the seat of government to cry victory over a budget drawn up with his unlikely coalition partner, the far-right League.

He toasted the win with a party for his team on a boat on Rome's Tevere, or Tiber, river. 

Yet this weekend, furious M5S voters were burning the movement's flag over broken electoral promises.

Di Maio's difficulties are thrown into sharp relief by the success of his co-deputy prime minister, League head Matteo Salvini, a far more experienced politician with a savvy social media team and a fondness for whipping up racial intolerance.

Salvini, 45, is the uncontested head of a united party, while Di Maio, 32, is struggling to keep rebellious factions in line. Under the movement's rules, this is also the last term he can serve, rendering him a de facto lame-duck leader.

Five Star became Italy's largest party at the March elections, winning nearly 33 percent of the vote, while the League fell in as its junior coalition partner with 17 percent.

READ ALSO: Luigi Di Maio, the face of Italian populism

But the noise of champagne corks popping had barely died away when the League began gaining popularity, shooting into the lead while M5S flagged.

L-R: Luigi di Maio, Giuseppe Conte and Matteo Salvini. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

'Climate of uncertainty'

The League now boasts 31 percent of voter intentions, while M5S has 27 percent, polls this week show. Salvini is the country's most popular politician, with 58 percent compared to Di Maio's 51 percent, according to Ipsos Italia. 

Both leaders have fought with Brussels over the budget, but when Di Maio accused European Central Bank head Mario Draghi of attacking Italy, even the Fatto Quotidiano daily — which usually defends the movement — slammed his “infantilism and incompetence”.

Di Maio is being “hampered by the climate of uncertainty,” Leonardo Morlino, political science professor at Rome's Luiss University, told AFP.

“The movement made promises it really wants to keep. He's struggling,” he said. 

Let-downs in the South

With his boyish grin looking increasingly strained, Di Maio has called for unity within his movement after a series of about-turns on pledges, particularly in the south, where the party won much of its support.

The M5S had vowed to close Ilva, one of Europe's most polluting steel plants, but Di Maio has kept it open.

Last week he rowed back on a pledge to halt an international gas transport project, saying it would cost too much to abandon the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) at this late stage.

All eyes are now on the controversial TAV high-speed rail link to connect Turin with Lyon in France. The movement has long opposed it, but the League is for.

Di Maio has denied the movement is in crisis, though analysts say the TAV U-turn could be a killer blow. The project is hated by many of his party's supporters in the south.

READ ALSO: What the election result tells us about Italy's north-south divide

“Di Maio keeps promises. Not his own, but those of (former premiers Silvio) Berlusconi and (Matteo) Renzi,” quipped political observer Mattia Feltri.

Photo: Piero Cruciatti/AFP

'Attacked'

The Neapolitan can boast one victory: while he has been obliged to back a tax amnesty demanded by the League, he managed to get Salvini to water it down by removing a clause regarding overseas funds.

His claim an “unidentified hand” had tried to tweak the deal behind his back had sparked ridicule on social media.

He urged Five Star on Monday to close ranks, just as Roman soldiers used to lock shields to keep out enemy arrows — though his appeal prompted more mockery after Twitter users spotted similarities between his rallying words and a Wikipedia entry.

“I'm scared to see what Italy is becoming,” 94-year old Rossana Rossanda, journalist and partisan, told Repubblica.

The man who scares her, however, is “Salvini, because he knows what he wants. Di Maio is just always there, smiling”.

By Ella Ide

ITALIAN ELECTIONS

Berlusconi to run for Senate in Italy’s elections

Scandal-plagued former premier Silvio Berlusconi said he plans to return to Italy's parliament in upcoming elections, almost a decade after being forced out over a conviction for tax fraud.

Berlusconi to run for Senate in Italy's elections

“I think that, in the end, I will be present myself as a candidate for the Senate, so that all these people who asked me will finally be happy,” the 85-year-old billionaire and media mogul told Rai radio on Wednesday.

After helping bring down Prime Minister Mario Draghi last month by withdrawing its support, Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party looks set to return to power in elections on September 25th.

It is part of a right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy, which includes Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League.

Berlusconi brushed off reports he is worried about the possibility of Meloni – whose motto is “God, country and family” – becoming prime minister.

Noting the agreement between the parties that whoever wins the most votes chooses the prime minister, he said: “If it is Giorgia, I am sure she will prove capable of the difficult task.”

READ ALSO: Italy’s hard right set for election victory after left-wing alliance collapses

But he urged voters to back his party as the moderate voice in the coalition, emphasising its European, Atlanticist stance.

“Every extra vote in Forza Italia will strengthen the moderate, centrist profile of the coalition,” he said in a separate interview published Wednesday in the Il Giornale newspaper.

League party leader Matteo Salvini (L), Fratelli d’Italia leader Giorgia Meloni and Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi pictured in October 2021. The trio look set to take power following snap elections in September. Photo by CLAUDIO PERI / ANSA / AFP

Berlusconi was Italy’s prime minister three times in the 1990s and 2000s, but has dominated public life for far longer as head of a vast media and sports empire.

The Senate expelled him in November 2013 following his conviction for tax fraud, and he was banned from taking part in a general election for six years.

He was elected to the European Parliament in 2019, however, and threw his hat in the ring earlier this year to become Italy’s president — although his candidacy was predictably short-lived.

Berlusconi remains a hugely controversial figure  in Italy and embroiled in the many legal wrangles that have characterised his long career.

He remains on trial for allegedly paying guests to lie about his notorious “bunga-bunga” sex parties while prime minister.

Berlusconi has also suffered a string of health issues, some related to his hospitalisation for coronavirus in September 2020, after which he said he had almost died.

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