Since sweeping to power in 2018, the so-called 5 Star Movement has struggled to find any sense of purpose or identity. Largely serving as little more than an appendage to Mario Draghi’s Government, it is now polling at a meagre 12%. The local elections were a wash-out, marking a heavy defeat for the party that, in most Italian cities, was forced to align itself with the liberal centre-Left Democratic Party.
For some time, there had been talk of an internal rift between the party’s leader Giuseppe Conte and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who is one of the leading figures of the 5 Star. This week, this rift spilled into open conflict when Di Maio decided to leave and to create a new parliamentary group called ‘Together for the Future’.
According to the Italian press, the division in the party is due to its position on the war in Ukraine. While Conte’s side has been against sending arms, Di Maio wanted to hold a position closer to NATO and Draghi, saying that Five Star “had the duty to support the government without ambiguity… supporting European and Atlanticist values cannot be seen as a fault”.
The 5 Star Movement has always voted in favour of all parliamentary resolutions to send weapons to Ukraine, so Di Maio’s reason for leaving seems odd. In truth, he is probably thinking a little more cynically. The next elections are close (less than a year away) and it is likely that Di Maio and other 5 Star members are fleeing a sinking ship in order to get a seat in the next Parliament.
The Italian public has abandoned 5 Star too. The awful result in the local elections revealed as much when the party secured only 2.1% of the vote nationwide. Despite four years in power, 5 Star grew no roots in any local territories, and its voters did not appreciate the party’s toeing of the Government line on Covid-19, the alliance with PD, sending weapons to Ukraine, and above all propping up Draghi’s Government.
It could have been so different. When the 5 Star Movement took office with 33% of the vote, there was a sense in Italy that we were entering a new era. But it turned out that neither 5 Star nor the League were really prepared to govern. Having campaigned as populists, they were slowly subsumed into the very establishment they railed against.
In all likelihood, the split in the 5 Star Movement will lead to the death of the party (some are already talking about changing the its name). Its only option now would be to discredit and scapegoat Di Maio and try to regain credibility by opposing Draghi’s neoliberal policies, but this scenario does not seem to be on the horizon.
Populist parties no longer exist in Italy, but there is still a populist electorate. The votes lost by the 5 Star Movement have not moved to other parties but have either dispersed to smaller groups or abstained altogether.
Abstention itself is the big issue in Italian politics today and will remain a problem in the 2023 national elections if no force is capable of adopting a new populist strategy. At this stage, all we know for sure is that this force will not be called the 5 Star Movement.