Luigi Di Maio: From political upstart to Italy’s foreign minister

Italy's new foreign minister, Five Star Movement chief Luigi Di Maio, is a telegenic young gun who has turned his anti-establishment party into a mainstream political force capable of allying with right and left.

Luigi Di Maio: From political upstart to Italy's foreign minister
Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement and new Foreign Minister. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

His boyish, clean-cut looks hide a stubborn streak: the 33-year old was deputy prime minister in the outgoing government and had been threatening to torpedo the new tie-up with Italy's centre-left Democratic Party (PD) if he was demoted.

Derided by critics as a self-centred robot, he was persuaded to accept the trophy role of foreign minister instead. After the cabinet was officially sworn in on Thursday morning, he is the youngest foreign minister in Italy's postwar history.

READ ALSO: Here is Italy's new cabinet in full

Di Maio led his party to astonishing electoral success last year, propelling the grass-roots mavericks to the forefront of Italy's political scene for the very first time as it signed a contract to govern with the nationalist League.

The young Neapolitan's willingness to jump into bed with both the League and the PD — who Five Star has spent years ferociously criticizing — has caused critics to accuse him of putting power before policies. 

Luigi Di Maio (L) shakes hands with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as he is sworn in as foreign minister. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

'Courageous and ambitious'

The country's fresh start with a left-leaning, pro-European coalition was undermined somewhat by Di Maio's insistence that he did not regret anything done during the 14 months of coalition with the far-right.

On Wednesday he said the new government would be “courageous and ambitious” and “pick up where we left off”. He said he would focus particularly on Africa, the hot-button issue of migration, and Italy's rapport with emerging economies.

His appointment was met with a mixed reaction in Italy, with some Twitter users saying Di Maio did not speak a word of English. And he will have to pull out all the charm stops with neighbouring France, after ruffling feathers in Paris in February by travelling to meet “yellow vest” anti-government protesters.

Di Maio's election as party leader in 2017 represented an important shift for Five Star — from the frantic conspiratorial ranting of iconoclast co-founder and stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo to a new measured, reassuring style. The southern upstart began life as a Grillo disciple, but became increasingly irritated by the loud-mouthed comic's attempts to direct the Movement from behind the scenes during the political crisis.

Di Maio has been involved with the M5S since its creation in 2009, campaigning against corruption and the European Union while promoting political transparency and direct democracy.

Following the February 2013 election, Five Star won a spectacular quarter of the vote and Di Maio, then aged just 26, was among 108 M5S candidates elected to the Chamber of Deputies — the lower house of the Italian parliament. A month later, he became the chamber's youngest ever deputy speaker.

'Reassuring to mums'

His elevation to party leader via an online vote, in which Di Maio's competitors were relative unknowns, prompted many commentators to brand his election as a coronation organized by “puppet-master” Grillo.

Others questioned his political authenticity, accusing him of being a hybrid creation of Grillo and consultants. “Di Maio was created to be moderate, reassuring to mums,” said Italian political journalist Jacopo Iacoboni.

The mums, however, were more drawn to ranting strongman Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant League, who quickly outstripped Di Maio in popularity thanks to his “Italians first” message and relentless social media skills. Di Maio's party also slumped in the polls and its deal with the PD was seen as a bid to avoid a potentially disastrous election.

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The new foreign minister was born on July 6th 1986 into a well-to-do family in Avellino near Naples. His father Antonio had a small construction business and was an activist for the now-defunct neo-fascist party Italian Social Movement, while his mother Paola was a Latin teacher.

The eldest of three children, Di Maio studied computer engineering at Naples University, later switched to law and never completed a degree. According to a CV posted on M5S's website, he founded his own web and social media marketing business while studying, as well as working on video projects.

A focus on marketing and presentation helped the M5S shift its tone on key issues with Di Maio at the helm. The M5S had consistently called for Italy to leave the single currency eurozone, but Di Maio has moderated their stance, making conciliatory overtures to the bloc which are set to continue under the tie-up with pro-Europe PD.

By AFP's Ella Ide

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Italian rivals pitch abroad in trilingual vote videos

Days after Italy's far-right leader made a multilingual appeal to foreign commentators to take her seriously, her main rival in September elections issued his own tit-for-tat video Saturday condemning her record.

Italian rivals pitch abroad in trilingual vote videos

Former prime minister Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, declared his pro-European credentials in a video in English, French and Spanish, while deriding the euroscepticism of Italy’s right-wing parties.

It echoes the trilingual video published this week by Giorgia Meloni, tipped to take power in the eurozone’s third largest economy next month, in which she sought to distance her Brothers of Italy party from its post-fascist roots.

“We will keep fighting to convince Italians to vote for us and not for them, to vote for an Italy that will be in the heart of Europe,” Letta said in English.

His party and Meloni’s are neck-and-neck in opinion polls ahead of September 25 elections, both with around 23 percent of support.

But Italy’s political system favours coalitions, and while Meloni is part of an alliance with ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi and anti-immigration leader Matteo Salvini, Letta has struggled to unite a fractured centre-left.

Speaking in French perfected in six years as a dean at Sciences Po university in Paris, Letta emphasised European solidarity, from which Italy is currently benefiting to the tune of almost 200 billion euros ($205 billion) in
post-pandemic recovery funds.

“We need a strong Europe, we need a Europe of health, a Europe of solidarity. And we can only do that if there is no nationalism inside European countries,” he said.

He condemned the veto that he said right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor “Orban — friends and allies of the Italian right — is using every time he can (to) harm Europe”.

In Spanish, Letta highlighted Meloni’s ties with Spain’s far-right party Vox, at whose rally she spoke earlier this summer, railing at the top of her voice against “LGBT lobbies”, Islamist violence, EU bureaucracy and mass

In English, he condemned the economic legacy of Berlusconi, a three-time premier who left office in 2011 as Italy was on the brink of economic meltdown, but still leads his Forza Italia party.

Letta’s programme includes a focus on green issues — he intends to tour Italy in an electric-powered bus — and young people, but he has made beating Meloni a key plank of his campaign.

Meloni insisted in her video that fascism was in the past, a claim greeted with scepticism given her party still uses the logo of a flame used by the Italian Social Movement set up by supporters of fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

In a joint manifesto published this week, Meloni, Berlusconi and Salvini committed themselves to the EU but called for changes to its budgetary rules — and raised the prospect of renegotiating the pandemic recovery plan.

Elections were triggered by the collapse of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government last month, and are occurring against a backdrop of soaring inflation, a potential winter energy crisis and global uncertainty sparked by
the Ukraine war.