‘They’re all talk’: How the Five Star Movement lost southern Italy’s support

After soaring to power in 2018 on a wave of support from southern Italian voters hoping for long-awaited change, the Five Star Movement is now languishing in the polls. Where did it all go wrong?

'They're all talk': How the Five Star Movement lost southern Italy's support
Residents in the Sanita district of Naples, which overwhelmingly supported Five Star in the last general election. Photo: Carlo Hermann / AFP

Vincenzo Zoppi leans over the balcony of his cramped Naples apartment, surveying his impoverished neighbourhood he says has been betrayed by Italy’s politicians.

“You know when they come? When there are elections,” the 70-year-old former mechanic says, adding that his vote for the Five Star Movement in 2018 will be his last.

READ ALSO: What election promises have Italy’s political parties made so far?

“They all have the same idea: ‘I have to get that position and when I get my seat, it’s over.’ They’ll never do anything.”

His view of the once anti-establishment party is widely shared in Naples, Italy’s third-largest city, as the country prepares to vote on September 25.

Like most of southern Italy, Naples — with an unemployment rate more than double the national average – overwhelmingly supported Five Star in the last general election.

Many were drawn by its flagship ‘citizen’s income’ benefit for the unemployed, as well as its anti-austerity programme and rejection of traditional politics.

Residents in the Sanita district of Naples, which overwhelmingly supported Five Star in the last general election. Photo: Carlo Hermann / AFP

But the grassroots support that fuelled the movement has ebbed away, with polls now putting Five Star on less than a third of the 33 percent it won in 2018.

“Those who voted for you because you were the disruptive force to empower the south, won’t vote anymore,” said Matteo Brambilla, 53, a former Naples city councillor who quit Five Star last October.

“They’re not credible anymore.”

The Five Star Movement identifies as neither left nor right, and started out on a strongly eurosceptic, environmentalist, anti-austerity platform focused on tackling poverty and corruption while repudiating career politicians.

But four years in government has taken its toll on the movement.

“Five Star were the expression of a huge protest against the failure of traditional parties,” said Giovanni Orsina, head of the Luiss School of Government in Rome.

“But from the moment you get into government, at that point the protest ends,” he said.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy’s Five Star Movement

Former Five Star Movement (M5S) leader Luigi Di Maio in happier times, when he enjoyed strong support in Naples at elections in 2018. Photo by Carlo Hermann / AFP

The party has allied with political opponents in office – first the anti-immigrant League, then the left-leaning Democratic Party, and finally joining almost all of Italy’s parties last year as part of the grand coalition led by Mario Draghi. 

With these shifts have come policy reversals, public rifts between party leaders and accusations of cronyism, while former members complain decisions are now imposed from Rome rather than developed from the ground up.

Five Star has also shed lawmakers, losing more than half of its deputies and 45 percent of its senators since 2018, according to a YouTrend study.

The defectors include Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, a former party leader from outside Naples who had put a more professional face on the movement founded by irreverant, combative comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009.

Di Maio quit in June along with dozens of lawmakers, accusing current Five Star leader Giuseppe Conte of trying to thwart Draghi’s pro-European, Atlanticist agenda. 

Photo by Carlo Hermann / AFP

A month later, Conte withdrew his support for Draghi’s government, triggering a crisis that led to snap elections.

Conte – a former law professor brought in as a technocratic premier following the 2018 vote, before being replaced by Draghi – has been trying to save Five Star from oblivion by emphasising its anti-establishment roots.

“We are the more progressive force, it’s obvious,” he has insisted, citing the party’s battle for a nine euro-per-hour minimum wage.

Five Star’s platform this year also includes tax breaks for hiring young people, protections for indebted homeowners, credits for green building projects and opposition to oil and gas drilling.

The universal citizen’s income remains a flagship policy, which the party claims has allowed one million Italians to escape poverty – many of them in Naples.

READ ALSO: Will Italy’s hard right win the election with a ‘super majority’?

Photo by Carlo Hermann / AFP

More than 161,000 families, or over 13 percent of greater Naples’ population, received on average 637 euros from the scheme in June, according to the most recent figures from the National Social Security Institute.

But the scheme has been attacked for supposedly encouraging unemployment and fraud, with Italian media regularly reporting cases of mafiosi, non-citizens and others said to have illegally received the payment.

In the alleys of Naples’ Sanita quarter, where fading funeral notices cover crumbling walls and fruit stands remind shoppers they can pay with the welfare debit card, resident Giuseppe Capuozzo vowed to “never again” vote for Five Star.

“It was a disaster. Economically, nothing. They talk, talk, talk,” said Capuozzo, his white scooter laden with grocery bags.

“But us, who’s helping us?” he asked.

A market in the Sanita district of Naples. Photo by Carlo Hermann / AFP

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EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers met in Brussels on Friday to discuss the latest migrant crisis – a move that was precipitated by Italy's controversial clash with France over the handling of refugees.

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers gathered for crisis talks on Friday as an ugly row between Paris and Rome over how to handle would-be refugees forced a EU migration reform back onto their agenda.

New arrival numbers haven’t yet hit the levels of 2015 and 2016, but European capitals are concerned about new pressure on sea routes from North Africa and overland through the western Balkans.

And now, with winter temperatures descending in eastern Europe and Ukrainian cities facing power cuts under Russian bombardment, the European Union is braced for many more war refugees.

The bloc has been struggling for years to agree and implement a new policy for sharing responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers, but a new dispute has brought the issue to the fore.

READ ALSO: Why are France and Italy rowing over migrants and what are the consequences?

Earlier this month, Italy’s new government under far-right leader Georgia Meloni refused to allow a Norwegian-flagged NGO ship to dock with 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.

The Ocean Viking eventually continued on to France, where authorities reacted with fury to Rome’s stance, suspending an earlier deal to take in 3,500 asylum seekers stranded in Italy.

The row undermined the EU’s stop-gap interim solution to the problem, and Paris called Friday’s extraordinary meeting of interior ministers from the 27 member states.

Migrants in Lampedusa, Italy

Earlier this month, France suspended a deal by which it would take as many as 3,500 refugees stranded in Italy. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Complaints from Mediterranean countries closer to North African shores like Italy and Greece that they were shouldering too much responsibility for migrants led to the previous plan.

A dozen EU members agreed to take on 8,000 asylum seekers – with France and Germany taking 3,500 each – but so far just 117 relocations have taken place.

‘Nothing new’

After Italy refused responsibility for the Ocean Viking, France has declared that it no longer wants to not only allow ships to arrive from Italian waters but also take in thousands of other migrants.

On Monday, in a bid to revive the mechanism, the European Commission unveiled another action plan to better regulate arrivals on the central Mediterranean route.

“Obviously the meeting was set up following the spat between Italy and France over the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking,” a European diplomat said.

“The action plan that was shared with member states is perfectly fine, but contains nothing new, so it isn’t going to solve the migration issue.”

Stephanie Pope, an expert on migration for the aid agency Oxfam, dubbed Brussels’ plan “just another reshuffle of old ideas that do not work”. 

“It is a waste of time,” she said.

The plan would see a closer coordination between EU national authorities and humanitarian NGOs on rescues of migrants whose make-shift, overcrowded boats are in difficulty.

And it would see Brussels work more closely with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to try to stop undocumented migrants boarding smuggler vessels in the first place.

READ ALSO: Italy arrests suspected trafficker over deaths of seven migrants

France would like a new framework within which NGO boats could operate – neither a total ban nor a carte blanche to import would-be refugees.

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse the humanitarian charities of operating without respect to national authorities and of effectively encouraging immigration.

Migrants on a boat arriving in Italy

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse NGOs of operating with disregard to national authorities. Photo by Gianluca CHININEA / AFP

Other member states, including Germany, argue that there can be no limits on humanitarian operations – all seafarers are obliged by the law of the sea to save travellers in danger. 

Ahead of the talks, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, warned: “With almost 2,000 people having already died or gone missing so far this year alone, urgent action is needed.”

Grandi welcomed the European Commission’s draft plan for state-led rescues and predictable ports of disembarkation, adding: “While states point fingers and trade blame, lives are lost.”

Border force

While France and Italy argue about high-profile cases of dramatic rescues in the central Mediterranean, other EU capitals are more concerned about land routes through the Balkans.

Almost 130,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to have come to the bloc since the start of the year, an increase of 160 percent, according to the EU border force Frontex.

On Thursday, the Czech, Austrian, Slovak and Hungarian ministers met in Prague ahead of the trip to Brussels to stress that this route accounts for more than half of “illegal arrivals” in the bloc.

Austrian interior minister Gerhard Karner said the EU should finance border protection and give members “a legal tool to return people who come for economic reasons”.

Diplomats said France and Italy would try to dominate the talks with complaints about sea arrivals, while Greece and Cyprus would point fingers at Turkey for allegedly facilitating illegal entries.

Central and eastern countries would focus on the Balkans route and, as one diplomat said, “Hungary and Poland don’t want anything to do with anything in the field of migration.”