The Rise And Fall Of The Five Star Movement

How the Five Star Movement went from being the country’s first political force to having doubts about whether to run for elections, in just about a year.

Five Star Movement
Italia 5 Stelle – Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari – Imola (BO)” by Revol Web, licensed under CC BY 2.0

How the Five Star Movement went from being the country’s first political force to having doubts about whether to run for elections

“I want to thank the 11 million people who voted for us. Today, we are the absolute winners”. Luigi Di Maio was radiant on the evening of March 4 2018, when the Five Star Movement (M5s) had just become the first Italian political force, dominating the elections with about 32% of votes in both Chambers and peaks of almost 50% in several southern regions. That day, the map of the country was painted in a bright yellow. It was an astonishing result for a party that run alone and that was founded just 10 years before by Beppe Grillo, a comedian who was tired of the caste privileges and of ideological divisions that sheared off the country.

Suddenly, 32-years-old Luigi Di Maio — who, before entering politics, used to sell food and drinks at San Paolo stadium in Naples — found himself negotiating with long-time statesmen, trying to give Italy a government in the sign of honesty. After months of attempts and retractions, Di Maio was appointed Minister of Economic Development and vice-Prime Minister, signing a “government contract” with the far-right leader of The League, Matteo Salvini, who settled as well as vice Premier and Minister of the Interior. The Movement also managed to have a sympathizer sitting at Palazzo Chigi: Giuseppe Conte, the appointed Prime Minister, claimed to be independent, but he was spotted exulting with Di Maio when the election results were announced. Two years before, in 2016, the party had also put its name over Rome and Turin, electing respectively Virginia Raggi and Chiara Appendino as Mayors of the two neuralgic cities. The Five Star Movement was at the peak of success. 

Today, this scenario is hard to picture, seeming closer to a sci-fi story than to the reality Italian people were dealing with just about a year ago. Soon enough, the Movement started showing its dark sides. The party lost momentum, uncertain about where to stand with regard to primary problems, and unable to keep most of its promises. Di Maio was the undisputed leader, having received Grillo’s blessing, but he was quickly crushed by Salvini’s strong personality and firm policies about the hottest topic of the moment: immigration. During the brief but intense government experience with The League — from June 2018 to September 2019 — Luigi Di Maio and his team’s indecisiveness paved the way to Salvini’s success at the polls. The Movement’s unclear standpoint was represented also by the party’s claim of not identifying neither as a right-wing nor as a left-wing group, being instead post-ideological: “We have always been a post-ideological party. We firmly believe that there are no ‘right ideas’ or ‘left ideas’, but only feasible solutions” Di Maio said. On the other hand, Matteo Salvini’s program didn’t leave room for doubts, imposing the “closed ports” motto  as a trademark of his efforts against migratory fluxes coming to Italy from the Libyan coasts.

The relationships between the allies were tense, marked by constant quarrels and vicious attacks that filled newspapers headlines. With the new year, threats about toppling the government and calling for early elections became commonplace claims by both forces in the majority. Until it actually happened. 

A first, important crack hit the M5s after the European elections of last May 26. About a year after the triumphant results reached in the domestic elections, the Five Star Movement went through a breakdown in consensus which almost halved its results, which went from 32% to 17%. At the same time, The League experienced the opposite trend, rising from 17% to 34%. Salvini was over the moon, while all Di Maio could do was to admit his defeat. Of course, the European elections do not have any direct consequence on the individual countries’ internal balances but, nonetheless, it was impossible not to notice how the tables had turned. 

The straw that broke the camel’s back was related to the fight about the TAV, a high-speed train that should link Turin with Lyon, in France. Actually, the discussion about the TAV had been a constant presence in the Italian public and political debate since well before 2019, with on-and-off protests and flash mobs that monopolize the mediatic attention for a few days and then are quickly moved to the back burner. Di Maio’s party has always claimed to be against the project, considering it useless and with an excessive environmental cost. In August 2019, the Movement presented a motion to the Parliament aimed at stopping the project, positioning itself in clear contrast with its ally The League, which instead supported the TAV. “I will ask Italian people to go back to the ballot box if the majority forces will prove to have taken opposite paths”, Matteo Salvini claimed after the motion’s announcement, which was anyways voted only by the M5s. 

A few days later Salvini, in a full delirium of omnipotence that kept growing and growing after the success at the European elections, announced his intention to break the alliance with the M5s and to call for new elections. “I ask Italian people to give me full powers” he said, alarmingly quoting Benito Mussolini, the dictator who run Italy for 20 years before and during World War Second. But things didn’t quite go as Salvini planned, and the Five Star Movement somehow managed to form a new government with the left-wing Democratic Party (PD) led by Nicola Zingaretti.

This was a complete overturn. So much so that before officializing the alliance, Di Maio asked party members to give their blessing about the new government on the party’s online platform Rousseau. In early September, while a troubled summer was fading away, the Movement asked its activists: “Do you agree with the decision of forming a government with the Democratic Party, led by Giuseppe Conte?” ‘Yes’ won with almost 80% of votes, and the new coalition took oath on September 5, 2019. Matteo Salvini called to the treason of Italian people, tweeting: “They say so with no shame: this government only exists because they fear me”, and: “They showed their true colors: Italian people will not forgive them.”

Here we are. As of December 2019, the so-called “yellow and red” government supported by M5s and PD is still ongoing, not without difficulties. But the Five Star Movement is not the same as in 2018. Discussions and crises are daily routines and many politicians have started criticizing Di Maio’s leadership from inside the party, accusing him of having too much power over the Movement’s decisions at the national, regional and local levels. For his part, Luigi is trying to manage discontent by organizing the creation of a “Future Team” of 12 people which would flank him in administering the territories more closely.

Precisely for focusing on the renovation of the party’s internal dynamics, Di Maio was uncertain about whether to run for the coming regional elections in Emilia Romagna and Calabria, scheduled for January 26, 2020. “The Movement is going through difficult times, and I am the first one who admits this — Di Maio said — and we need to fix a few things.” Since the Movement was once again divided about what to do for the elections, to cut the head off the snake, there it was: the cure to all problems, the divine will. Rousseau. “Do you want the Five Star Movement to observe an election recess until next March, in order to properly get ready for the States-General, and therefore renounce to run for January’s regional elections?” activists were asked on M5s’ website.

No matter that Rousseau is an online platform exposed to the risks of hacking, results manipulation and privacy violations, or that literally everybody can subscribe and have a say in decisions that will affect a whole country’s future. No matter that Rousseau does not directly belong to the M5s, but rather it is managed by the “Rousseau Association” founded by Gianroberto Casaleggio. After all, “voters decide”, and almost 80% of them ruled that the Movement should run in Emilia Romagna and Calabria. It’s going to be ugly.

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