‘On the rocks’: Is this the end for Italy’s Five Star Movement?

Italy's Five Star Movement had until recently threatened to upend the political status quo, but today the party is becoming ‘totally irrelevant’, political commentators say.

'On the rocks': Is this the end for Italy's Five Star Movement?
(From L) M5S founder Beppe Grillo, M5S political activist Davide Casaleggio and former party leader Luigi Di Maio in October 2018. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Just three years ago, the then proudly anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) won a stunning 33 percent of the vote in a landmark general election win that propelled it into power.

But it currently has no formal leader, is hopelessly divided and is languishing in the polls after several policy U-turns and broken campaign promises.

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

Meanwhile, the party has lost access to its own online voting system, Rousseau, amid leadership in-fighting.

“They are really on the rocks,” commented Piergiorgio Corbetta, an emeritus professor at the University of Bologna who has written extensively about the rise and fall of the M5S.

The movement remains part of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s ‘national unity’ government and the largest party in parliament.

But between a quarter and a third of its lawmakers have left or have been expelled from its ranks, while it is half as popular as it was in 2018, polling at under 17 percent.

Former premier Giuseppe Conte has been tapped to take over and revive the party, but infighting means his nomination has been blocked.

Five Star’s online voting system, Rousseau, was at the centre of the party’s campaign for “digital democracy”. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

They are now, according to Corbetta, “totally irrelevant” in Draghi’s government, holding just four out of 23 ministerial posts, and politically drifting, with their putative alliance with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) a work in progress.

“I can’t deny that it is a difficult and tense period,” M5S lawmaker Sergio Battelli told AFP. “The movement has evolved, it has changed, it has made some errors… but the M5S is here to stay.”

Neither left nor right

Comedian Beppe Grillo launched the M5S in 2009 with Gianroberto Casaleggio, an internet guru, by organising rallies against Italy’s deep-rooted problems with political corruption.

They swept up voters outraged at the austerity imposed in the wake of the eurozone debt crisis of 2011-12, which pushed Italy to the brink of insolvency, and followed a radical anti-elites, anti-corporate agenda.

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

M5S supporters a poster reading “Renzusconi, you will all go home” showing a photomontage of politicians Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Renzi, who Five Star say are figureheads of a political establishment mired in scandal and corruption. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli AFP

The movement claimed to be neither left- nor right-wing, and vowed never to ally with other political parties.

But they were forced to after the 2018 election, which while historic, left M5S short of a parliamentary majority to govern on its own.

It initially formed a populist, eurosceptic coalition government with the nationalist, anti-immigration far-right League led by Matteo Salvini.

Barely a year later, it switched to a pro-Europe coalition with the PD.

Mirroring that ideological switch, the M5S went from courting an alliance with France’s anti-government “Yellow Vest” movement to seeking ties with French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist LREM party. 

The M5S is now in office with both the League and the PD, as part of the ‘national unity’ government led by Draghi – the former European Central Bank president who saved the euro currency the M5S once reviled.

PROFILE: Who is new Italian prime minister Mario Draghi?

In office, the M5S softened or dropped many of its flagship policies, such as its opposition to high-speed railway projects, which it considered a corruption-prone waste of public money.

But it also scored some results, notably the introduction in 2019 of the reddito di cittadinanza, a form of income support for the unemployed.

Enrico Garitta, a 25-year-old M5S member from Palermo, said the party has effectively grown up.

“Some of the things they were saying, on Europe, for example, were man-on-the-street slogans that didn’t stand up to the realities of governing,” he said.

Former M5S leader Luigi Di Maio (L) and League head Matteo Salvini smile before the swearing in ceremony of their new coalition government  on June 1, 2018. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Even if formally leaderless, the party still has a father figure in Grillo. But he is mired in controversy and accusations of misogyny after publishing a video defending his son Ciro against allegations of gang rape.

Meanwhile, Alessandro Di Battista, once one of its most popular figures,has quit and is rumoured to be considering forming a new party with other rebels, possibly with help of co-founder Casaleggio’s son Davide.

Davide Casaleggio inherited from his father the online platform that formed the M5S’ organisational backbone, and is refusing to hand it over.

The M5S has disowned him, but in the process lost access to its official blog, party membership lists and online voting mechanisms — meaning Conte cannot formally be crowned leader.

Lawmaker Battelli railed against the “mistimed and shameful” episode, adding: “We’re going to have to sort this out in court.”

By AFP’s Alvise Armellini

Member comments

  1. I liked MS5 once but that changed 100% once in government and now i will be pleased to see them vanish forever.

    A completely useless party.

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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.