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Where Does Italy’s Enfeebled Five Star Find Itself? At the Center of Power

ROME — With the collapse of Italy’s government this week, the country’s immediate political future rests once again in the hands of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

“They are back at center stage,” said Jacopo Iacoboni, the author of “The Experiment,” a critical investigation of the Five Star Movement.

It was a remarkable turn for a party that has been hemorrhaging popular support and which for the past year has been cannibalized and humiliated by its former coalition partner, the hard-right League Party. But by pulling the plug on the government this month in a bid for an early election, the League paradoxically empowered the Five Star Movement all over again.

If Five Star can strike an alliance with its sworn enemies in the Democratic Party, it could avoid the early elections that are likely to decimate its ranks and keep the League, and its surging leader Matteo Salvini, out of power for years.

[Read more: ‘‘Horse-Trading Begins for Italy’s Next Government. Who Will Outsmart the Other?’’]

“In these hours, discussions have begun to find a solid majority,” Five Star’s political leader, Luigi Di Maio, said Thursday evening after meeting with Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, who is charged with exploring whether a new government can be formed.

Mr. Mattarella, speaking a few hours later, said that Italy’s major parties had informed him that negotiations were underway and that they had requested more time to determine whether they could put together a new majority. He said he would check back with party leaders starting on Tuesday.

Earlier on Thursday, the Democratic Party’s leader, Nicola Zingaretti, restated his willingness to join with Five Star, though he underlined “it was not an easy choice” given the party’s history and asserted that it would have to agree to “nonnegotiable” conditions.

Otherwise, the Democratic Party, which has less to lose, is “ready” for new elections, he said.

As the day went on, it added requirements, and pressure, calling on Five Star to agree to spending cuts, the absolute abolishment of Mr. Salvini’s trademark law cracking down on migrants, and a review of Five Star’s call to cut the number of Parliament members, though it was but a vote away from approval.

But Mr. Di Maio said Thursday night that cutting the members of Parliament remained the first of his party’s 10 priorities.

Those and other differences will have to be worked out in the next hours and days before the two parties can agree on a new prime minister to form a government.

ImageCreditVincenzo Pinto/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But Five Star’s critics warn that such an alliance, while tactically beneficial in the short term, could come at a long-term cost.

“It’s worrying,” Mr. Iacoboni said. “When it comes to values, they have shown themselves to be conspiracy theorists.”

Critics say the party, born a decade ago on the internet and in angry rallies, has an opaque power structure and is purposefully vague on critical issues such as its support for the euro, vaccines and Russia’s Vladimir V. Putin.

Mr. Salvini, in prompting the crisis, argued that Five Star’s recalcitrance, and incompetence, prevented the government from getting anything done and kept Italy stuck in the past.

He had a lot of material to work with.

Mr. Di Maio, the 33-year-old political leader of the Five Star Movement and the deputy prime minister, whose previous work experience consisted largely of working as an usher in a soccer stadium, was often relegated to aping Mr. Salvini’s speeches and style.

[Read more: ‘‘5 Years Ago Luigi Di Maio Was Living at Home. Now He May Lead Italy.’’]

From a balcony of Chigi Palace, the seat of Italian government, Mr. Di Maio declared in September that Five Star had “abolished poverty” by passing an unemployment benefit. His most memorable foreign policy foray was a road trip to France to try to strike an alliance with Yellow Vest protesters.

That didn’t work out, but it did succeed in so alienating France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, that he called back his ambassador from Rome in protest.

To get around the two-term limit that is one of Five Star’s founding anti-establishment beliefs, Mr. Di Maio held an online tutorial in July introducing “term zero,” which explained that the rule still stood, but that the year zero should now be counted before one. This feat of creative accounting would pack three terms into two.

“What is the zero term?” he said. “It’s a term, the first, which doesn’t count in the rule of two terms. It’s a term that doesn’t matter.”

That tolerance for alternate arithmetic extended to a disdain for financial expertise.

The under secretary of the Treasury, Laura Castelli, who before the election said she didn’t know whether she would vote to leave the euro or not, incorrectly asserted on a leading talk show in November that bond spreads had no impact on housing mortgages.

When the previous economy minister, Pier Carlo Padoan, of the Democratic Party, tried to explain to her how in fact they did, she cut him off.

ImageCreditYara Nardi/Reuters

“This what you say,” she said.

After the collapse of the Morandi bridge last August in Genoa, which killed 43 people, Transportation Minister Danilo Toninelli talked about building a new and better bridge, where people “can play and can eat.”

Barbara Lezzi, the Five Star minister in charge of the country’s troubled south, argued as a senator that a rise in gross domestic product under the previous government was due to the high summer temperatures, which prompted Italians to use their air-conditioners more, also in their cars, and resulted in an “explosion of industrial production.”

Critics say the party’s insistence on making a virtue of common-man incompetence is not just economic, and that it has demonstrated a weakness for conspiracy theories.

Giulia Grillo, the health minister, has supported rollbacks of vaccine obligations and fired Italy’s board of technical-scientific experts for, she said, the sake of change.

Carlo Sibilia, who was a Ministry of the Interior under secretary, has expressed his doubts that men truly landed on the moon, and Elio Lannutti, a Five Star senator, suggested on Twitter in January that Jews controlled the world banking system, and quoted the anti-Semitic ‘‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’’

But critics say the most troubling thing about the party, co-founded by the proudly vulgar comedian Beppe Grillo and the late futurist Gianroberto Casaleggio, is its power structure.

Days before the collapse of the government, as speculation mounted about a possible alliance between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement, Mr. Zingaretti had a phone conversation with Davide Casaleggio, the son of the party’s co-founder.

[Read more: ‘‘The Mystery Man Who Runs Italy’s ‘Five Star’ From the Shadows’’]

Mr. Casaleggio is not an elected official nor does he have any official leadership role in the Five Star Movement. And yet the media-shy internet entrepreneur wields enormous power through his small Milan company. He controls the party’s internal votes on candidates and policies.

One of the Democratic Party’s requirements for participation in an alliance was that Five Star acknowledge that Italy was in fact a representative democracy. That may seem like a no-brainer, but in an interview with the right-wing paper La Verita in July 2018, Mr. Casaleggio considered Parliament passé.

“Thanks to the internet and technologies,” he said, “there are decidedly more democratic and effective instruments of participation in terms of the representativeness of the popular will than any 20th-century model of government. Overcoming representative democracy is therefore inevitable.”

Now, representative democracy, and shifting parliamentary alliances, was instead his party’s best hope to stay in power.

“We will not let the ship sink,” Mr. Di Maio said on Thursday.


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