ANALYSIS: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Born ten years ago from a grassroots rebellion against traditional politics, Italy's Five Star Movement has evolved into a party capable of forging alliances with the far-right and now the left.

ANALYSIS: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy's establishment
Five Star supporters rally in Rome before the EU elections. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Founded by comedian Beppe Grillo and digital marketing specialist Gianroberto Casaleggio, the anti-establishment M5S initially refused any alliances.

But March 2018 elections saw the M5S become the biggest party in Italian politics with 32 percent of the vote, and they eventually formed a coalition with Matteo Salvini's populist, anti-migrant League.

A little over a year later, the M5S is now in talks with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) to form a new coalition after Salvini tried to bring down the government in a failed power grab.

READ ALSO: How Matteo Salvini lost his gamble to become Italy's PM – for now

The M5S has lost ground to the League over the last 14 months, dropping to 17 percent in May's European parliamentary elections, while the League went from 17 percent last year to 34 percent this year.

“In Italy, given the constitution and the electoral law (which mixes proportional representation with first past the post), the only way to enter into power is to make compromises and that's what M5S has learned,” said Emiliana De Blasio, political science lecturer at Rome's Luiss University.

“Without these compromises, they would have stayed in the corner of the political landscape without ever being able to play a role in the country's public life,” she told AFP.


The Five Star Movement's current leader, Luigi Di Maio. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

The M5S is atypical in its organisation and ideology, neither right- nor left-wing, but rather created as an alternative to “establishment” parties, as typified by their latest ally, the PD.

Its transformation from protest movement to governing party played out in successive elections, starting in 2013 when it came in a surprise third place.

At the time, it was the charismatic Grillo and his diatribes against Italy's political “caste” that dominated the M5S. Dignity, hope, transparency were the watchwords on Grillo's extremely popular blog and in his rally speeches. 

“This position seduced voters exasperated by a political class characterised by scandals and corruption, who felt abandoned by those in government,” said political analyst Gianfranco Pasquino.

“But once in government the movement was confronted with the reality of power and had to change its political line on a raft of subjects, which disconcerted its own voters,” Pasquino told AFP.

READ ALSO: A new direction for Italy's M5S? Beppe Grillo distances himself from the party he founded

Beppe Grillo continue to attend party rallies but is not longer the Movement's leader. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

This change coincided with the naming of Luigi Di Maio as the Movement's political leader. In his 30s, with a relatively slick image compared to the unkempt Grillo, the choice of Di Maio showed a party transformed and ready to move on from its purely protest logic.

Besides forming political alliances, Di Maio's M5S changed course on several policies, notably on remaining in the eurozone. For years M5S had a highly eurosceptic position, which went as far as calling for a consultative referendum on keeping the single currency.

But days before the March 2018 election, the M5S abandoned any mention of leaving the European Union.

READ ALSO: The Five Star digital voting platform that could threaten a government deal in Italy

The Movement is founded on the idea of participatory democracy, and any future coalition deal with their former bitter rival the PD will be put to a vote on M5S's “Rousseau” online platform.

“Returning to the Rousseau system is going back to the M5S roots and a way to reassure long-term activists that the movement has not been perverted by power and that the grassroots still count, even if they don't count that much anymore,” said De Blasio.

“Especially from a democratic point of view, the fact that 100,000 people — the number of those signed up to Rousseau — will vote in the name of the 10 million Italians who voted M5S in 2018, is questionable,” she said. 

By AFP's Franck Iovene

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Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.