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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

Far right set to take power in Italy after topping vote, exit polls show

Far-right leader Giorgia Meloni came top in Italian elections on Sunday, exit polls suggested, putting her eurosceptic populists on course to take power at the heart of Europe.

Far right set to take power in Italy after topping vote, exit polls show

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which has neo-fascist roots, has never held office but looks set to form Italy’s most far-right government since the fall of dictator Benito Mussolini during World War II.

Exit polls published by the Rai public broadcaster and Quorum/YouTrend both put Brothers of Italy on top, at between 22 and 26 percent of the vote.

BLOG: Italian election exit polls suggest victory for Giorgia Meloni

Her allies, Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, lagged behind but between them appear to have enough seats to secure a majority in both houses of parliament.

The result must still be confirmed but risks fresh trouble for the European Union, just weeks after the far-right outperformed in elections in Sweden.

Meloni, who campaigned on a motto of “God, country and family”, has abandoned her calls for one of Europe’s biggest economies to leave the eurozone, but says Rome must assert its interests more in Brussels.

“Today you can participate in writing history,” the 45-year-old tweeted before the polls closed.

Turnout was lower than in the 2018 elections.

Meloni had been leading opinion polls since Prime Minister Mario Draghi called snap elections in July following the collapse of his national unity government.

Hers was the only party not to join Draghi’s coalition when, in February 2021, the former European Central Bank chief was parachuted in to lead a country still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding the Brothers of Italy

For many voters, Meloni was “the novelty, the only leader the Italians have not yet tried”, Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo consultancy told AFP before the election.

But the self-declared “Christian mother” – whose experience of government has been limited to a stint as a minister in Berlusconi’s 2008 government – has huge challenges ahead.

Like much of Europe, Italy is suffering rampant inflation while an energy crisis looms this winter, linked to the conflict in Ukraine.

The Italian economy, the third largest in the eurozone, is also saddled with a debt worth 150 percent of gross domestic product.

‘Limited room for manoeuvre’

Brothers of Italy has roots in the post-fascist movement founded by supporters of Benito Mussolini, and Meloni herself praised the dictator when she was young.

She has sought to distance herself from the past as she built up her party into a political force, going from just four percent of the vote in 2018 to Sunday’s triumph.

Her coalition campaigned on a platform of low taxes, an end to mass immigration, Catholic family values and an assertion of Italy’s nationalist interests abroad.

They want to renegotiate the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund, arguing that the almost 200 billion euros Italy is set to receive should take into account the energy crisis.

But “Italy cannot afford to be deprived of these sums”, political sociologist Marc Lazar told AFP, which means Meloni actually has “very limited room for manoeuvre”.

The funds are tied to a series of reforms only just begun by Draghi.

 Ukraine support

Despite her euroscepticism, Meloni strongly supports the EU’s sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, although her allies are another matter.

Berlusconi, the billionaire former premier who has long been friends with Vladimir Putin, faced an outcry this week after suggesting the Russian president was “pushed” into war by his entourage.

It is only one area in which Meloni and her allies do not see eye to eye, leading some analysts to predict that their coalition may not last long.

EXPLAINED: Is Brothers of Italy a ‘far right’ party?

Italian politics is historically unstable, with almost 70 governments since 1946.

A straight-speaking Roman raised by a single mother in a working-class neighbourhood, Meloni rails against what she calls “LGBT lobbies”, “woke ideology” and “the violence of Islam”.

She has vowed to stop the tens of thousands of migrants who arrive on Italy’s shores each year, a position she shares with Salvini, who is currently on trial for blocking charity rescue ships when he was interior minister in 2019.

The centre-left Democratic Party claimed her government would pose a serious risk to hard-won rights such as abortion and will ignore global warming, despite Italy being on the front line of the climate emergency.

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