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ITALIAN POLITICS

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
Italy's Foreign Affairs Minister, Luigi Di Maio, at the Italian Senate in Rome on June 21st 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

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.

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ITALIAN POLITICS

Will Italy’s Five Star Movement split throw the government into crisis?

After the largest party in Italy's coalition government imploded over the country's response to the Ukraine war, Prime Minister Mario Draghi on Wednesday called for unity. Is another political crisis on the horizon?

Will Italy's Five Star Movement split throw the government into crisis?

Draghi has taken a firm, pro-EU line on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: sending weapons to Kyiv, backing sanctions on Moscow despite Italy’s heavy reliance on Russian gas, and supporting Ukraine’s hopes of joining the European Union.

But there have been rumblings of unease within his coalition government, which burst into the open on Tuesday with a split in parliament’s biggest party, the Five Star Movement.

Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving the party amid disagreements over how Italy should respond to the Ukraine war.

An estimated 60 lawmakers are following him into his breakaway group, named “Together for the Future” – just over a quarter of Five Star’s MPs.

READ ALSO: Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

The move risks upsetting the fragile balance of power in Draghi’s coalition government, a year before general elections are due and at a difficult time for Italians battling skyrocketing inflation.

A vote on Wednesday suggested parliament still overwhelmingly backs the premier, with the lower Chamber of Deputies approving by 410 to 29 a resolution supporting the Ukraine policy.

The Senate similarly approved it on Tuesday.

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

“Unity is essential in these moments because the decisions that must be taken are very difficult,” Draghi said before Wednesday’s result, which came one day before an EU summit in Brussels begins.

In an uncharacteristically combative address to deputies, Draghi accused those who disagreed with his policy of effectively calling on Kyiv to surrender.

“There is a fundamental difference between two points of view. One is mine – Ukraine must defend itself, and sanctions and the sending of weapons serve this goal,” Draghi said to applause.

“The other point of view is different. Ukraine must not defend itself, we shouldn’t do sanctions, we shouldn’t send armaments, Russia is too strong, why should we take her on, let Ukraine submit.”

Di Maio had made a similar attack on members of his own party at the weekend, paving the way for Tuesday’s defection.

Five Star leader Giuseppe Conte, the country’s former premier, has argued that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution, warning against getting involved in an escalating arms race.

Conte and Di Maio have been at odds since long before the war, however.

Five Star leader Giuseppe Conte stressed that his party still backed the coalition, saying: “Support for Draghi is not up for discussion.”

Nevertheless, some commentators believe Draghi’s coalition government – involving all main political parties except the far-right Brothers of Italy – will start to splinter ahead of 2023 elections.

The Five Star split is likely to weigh on “the entire political system, starting with Draghi, who is now more shaky than before,” wrote La Stampa columnist Marcello Sorgi.

The defections in Five Star leave the anti-immigration League of Matteo Salvini as the biggest party in parliament, but it too is struggling with waning public support.

Media reports this week suggest this could work in Giorgia Meloni’s favour in the next election – the far-right Brothers of Italy leader is now being touted as potentially becoming the country’s first female prime minister, as her party remains the only one in opposition to Draghi’s coalition.

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