17th Sep 2021

Italy's Five Star Movement on brink of collapse

  • Founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, the populist Five Star Movement attracted 11 million votes in Italy's 2018 general election - but is now facing possible collapse (Photo: pasere)

The Five Star Movement (M5S) - the populist party that won 11 million votes in Italy's 2018 general election - is on the brink of collapse.

According to one rightwing MP, speaking on condition of anonymity, "the M5S will probably implode, it will end up like the Soviet Union. Some of them will knock on my party's doors, others will become a satellite of the [centre-left] Democratic Party".

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The M5S crisis has arisen from the clash between comedian Beppe Grillo, co-founder of the party, and former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, who seemed destined to take the lead of the M5S.

According to Grillo, Conte is trying to grab too much power, with a new party statute he proposed. For his part, Conte accused Grillo of wanting to control the party like an "authoritarian father" would.

On top of that, rumours have circulated that that Conte does not appreciate Grillo's 'pro-China' attitude - at odds with Italy's membership of the EU and Nato.

"The M5S has issues of governance and democratic structure - though it is not the only Italian party with such problems," according to Nicola Melloni, a political economist and former fellow of the Munk School of Global Affairs of the University of Toronto. "Grillo's intervention may strengthen the idea that it is a personal party".

Pragmatists, loyalists, revolutionaries and survivalists

The M5S is divided: there are the 'pragmatists' who support Conte (among them Vito Crimi, the M5S 'regent'), those loyal to Grillo, another set of 'revolutionaries' who favour left-wing populist Alessandro Di Battista, and the 'survivalists' - who rely on foreign minister Luigi Di Maio, and president of the chamber of deputies Roberto Fico.

A collapse of the M5S would result in one, maybe two new parties, and shift Italy's political axis to the right in a very delicate phase.

The leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, is growing in the polls and is now one of the country's most popular politicians, along with prime minister Mario Draghi and Conte himself. And the election of a new president of the republic by the parliament in February 2022 is approaching.

Since the president of the republic is sort of a king without a crown in Italy, several sources in parliament told EUobserver that the centre-right parties aim to exploit the growing weakness of the M5S (which currently still holds the most seats in parliament) to elect a conservative president.

Some think the M5S deserves its fate; for example, Carlo Calenda, former member of the Democratic Party (PD) and now leader of the tiny centrist Azione party, said that "the M5S must be erased from Italian politics, they have fooled millions of Italians".

But a collapse of the M5S would be bad news for the PD, which "has invested a lot in its strategic alliance with the M5S," according to Andrea Ceron, associate professor of political science at the University of Milan. "In the polls, the PD gets about 20 percent of the vote, so they simply must have allies. If the M5S split, the PD would need to build a centre-left coalition that would be very fragmented, and unable to present clear proposals to voters".

The government of Draghi would not benefit from the collapse of the M5S either.

"Keeping everyone together would be even more difficult for the prime minister. It is one thing to lead a large coalition with fairly well-defined interlocutors, and quite another to have small leaders without a party as referents," notes Annarita Criscitiello, professor of Italian political system at the Federico II University in Naples.

'Wise men'

According to the Italian media, if Conte were to leave the M5S, he would found a new party - hoping to exploit his personal popularity. But Ceron is pessimistic: "Conte's party would have very little space. It would probably be just one more tiny centre-left party".

Fearing the party's collapse, the 'survivalists' Di Maio and Fico have tried to intervene. A committee of seven so-called 'wise men' must now find a compromise for the new M5S statute, the original cause of the current crisis.

While Conte has declared his trust in the work of the committee, this could be simply a political move by Grillo to buy time, find a way to exclude Conte and convince other party bigwigs not to follow him.

In the meantime, one opinion polls found that with a party of his own Conte might nudge over 10 percent of the vote, and the M5S would collapse to seven percent: a possible death-knell for a party that got 11 million votes only three years ago.

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.


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