Saturday

8th May 2021

Feature

Is Giuseppe Conte the last gasp for Italy's 5 Star Movement?

  • Giuseppe Conte as Italian PM in 2019, alongside Donald Tusk, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. He is now at the head of a former 'protest' movement (Photo: Consilium)

As the crisis of Italy's 5 Star Movement (M5S) deepens, with MPs ditching the party almost on a daily basis, and a lack of clear political direction, former premier Giuseppe Conte now stands as their last chance of survival.

Conte, who stepped down as prime minister in February after failing to secure a stable majority - thus paving way for Mario Draghi's arrival - is working on how to breathe new life into the movement, and strengthen its role within the new ruling coalition.

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  • 'We've lost the way. Conte is our only hope. He has the required experience, background, political consensus and credibility gained during his mandate as premier to handle such a tough restyle task', said one M5S source (Photo: Consilium)

If Conte fails to instil a quick revival then the weakness of the M5S is bound to impact on the stability of Draghi's majority - of which the M5S is the second-largest group, after the far-right League party.

M5S sources admit that in the absence of a 'strong' leader, able to resuscitate the movement with a clear political vision and programme, it would be hard to meaningfully contribute to the agenda on pro-growth measures and reforms to steer Italy out of the Covid-19 economic crisis.

"We've lost the way. Conte is our only hope. He has the required experience, background, political consensus and credibility gained during his mandate as premier to handle such a tough restyle task", said the source.

According to recent opinion polls, Conte is Italy's second-most popular politician after Draghi, and his move to become leader could boost M5S's electoral support to around 22 percent, from the current 17 percent, placing it second within the majority after the League.

The same source, however, was aware that recovering lost ground to the 32 percent support achieved in 2018 might be 'Mission Impossible'.

"Conte can stabilise the party, stop the haemorrhage of deputies and senators who are leaving, and strengthen our position among four allies. It's tougher to rule today with such a wide majority then back in 2018 with just the League, we're constantly looking over our shoulder to make sure our law proposals and amendments aren't scrapped by our allies", said another M5S official.

Since Draghi's rise to power the M5S have lost some 15 senators and 25 deputies, who are now voting alongside the opposition against the government, particularly in key parliamentary committees such as finance and budget where crucial pro-growth bills are passed.

Some former M5S dissidents might even create a new party.

Conte faces an uphill task, as he attempts to pave a way forward by re-building the party from its foundations through a new political structure.

Party sources said Conte is working on a new organisational model and style, envisaging an 'academy of talents' for future M5S politicians.

'Direct Democracy' ditched?

Conte will focus on rebuilding ties with the movement's grassroots and regional units, particularly in Italy's south, weakened when the M5S went from protest group to a ruling party - embedded within the establishment they had so bitterly fought against.

"This has been our problem all along: ever since our alliance with the League we haven't been able to organise ourselves into a real party, we kept being a 'movement' even though we had formed a cabinet. Now we need to change if we want to survive", said an official.

But the party's original identity cannot be forsaken, according to sources inside the movement. Some form of direct democracy, through which supporters participate in key party decisions, should not be forfeited. The movement recently ditched the use of its online platform 'Rousseau', following a spat over financial issues - and Conte has never been a great fan of such a direct democracy tool.

According to Giovanni Orsina, director of Rome's LUISS University school of government, Conte represents the only opportunity for a rebirth for - but his leadership has limits and comes at a cost.

If Conte gives the movement a complete revamp, his operation is likely to destroy the M5S's founding ideology, and turn it into a mainstream, traditional centrist force, similar to and aligned with the Democrats on pro-European, green and equal opportunities issues.

Kill the soul?

"Let's face it: Conte isn't a people's leader, he lacks the necessary skills to relaunch a party. As premier he has demonstrated he can liaise between quarrelling allies, find compromises, buy time, smooth the rough edges", Orsina told EUobserver.

"So yes, he can tidy up the movement, put it somehow in order, but he isn't made of the same stuff of former premier Matteo Renzi or League leader Matteo Salvini."

Orsina says Conte is no "demagogue" but has the merit of having realised that "political know-how cannot be replaced by the utopian honesty of the web", even if that means killing the "soul" of his movement.

"The M5S were born as an anti-establishment, dissident force. If Conte destroys the ideal of direct democracy, the anti-caste rhetoric and the 'Vaffanculo' [Fuck Off] spirit, what is left of it? It would become a clone of the Democrat party", argues Orsina.

With Conte at the helm of the Five Star Movement, the strategic partnership with the Democrats is bound to get stronger, both within the ruling coalition and on the ground in regions where the two parties are teaming up, ahead of the upcoming local elections.

Orsina noted it is no coincidence that the Democrat party's new leader Enrico Letta "openly cheers" for Conte, who as premier was the 'bridge' between the movement and the Democrats.

This so-called 'yellow-red' alliance has been growing since 2019, when then Democrat leader Matteo Renzi teamed up with the M5S to replace the League, which had pulled out of the crumbling governing coalition.

With Conte as movement leader there will be a "centrist" axis within the current ruling-majority, which will strengthen Draghi's national unity cabinet - albeit to the detriment of the identity of both M5S and the Democrats, according to Orsina.

Author bio

Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter. She covers finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of international media.

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