2016 was the year that changed everything in Italian politics. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, of the centre-left Democratic Party, was forced to resign after his botched attempt at constitutional reform was roundly rejected by voters. Just months after David Cameron’s resignation in the UK, plebiscitary democracy had claimed a second scalp in Europe, and the Italian political system was plunged into its default position; void of leadership and a target of inexorable resentment amongst a frustrated population. Meanwhile, the centre-right opposition continued to bear the scars of the former administration – irreconcilably divided, discredited on the economy and disgraced by the well-publicised antics of one Silvio Berlusconi. Never had a country presented such an open goal to the growing global force of populism, which the Lega Nord and the Five Star Movement ruthlessly exploited to its greatest extent yet, becoming coalition partners in a fully populist Italian government. Yet months down the line, it appears that the Five Star’s engine is spluttering, perhaps at an irreconcilable rate.
Beppe Grillo, an outspoken comedian often sidelined by public broadcasters for his scathing criticism of the Italian political class, positioned himself as the very embodiment of this anti-establishment sentiment. His party, the Five Star Movement, followed a strategy of unashamed triangulation – on the one hand, a proponent of environmentalism, digital democracy and socially-owned utilities – on the other, deeply Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant and even vaguely supportive of the Anti-Vax movement. Yet the greatest appeal to voters of all political shades was their stringent ethical standards for politicians in a country forever plagued by corruption and conflicts of interest. By the end of 2016, Five Star had moved from third-position to a close second in opinion polls and the 2018 election finally delivered the party victory, allowing for the formation of a so-called ‘Government of Change’ with the more aggressively nationalist Lega Nord.
While it is a common occurrence in Europe to see smaller parties bulldozed in coalition and their aspirations for government ignored, the capitulation of the Five Star Movement to their junior coalition partners the Lega Nord is nothing short of a remarkable phenomenon. One figure who has shown a propensity to compromise is the fresh-faced new leader of the Five Star, Luigi Di Maio, who took up the mantle after Beppe Grillo was (somewhat ironically) barred from Parliament due to his history of legal issues. Considered a pragmatist, Di Maio (himself the son of far-right politician) has been willing to allow his coalition partner, the Lega Nord’s Matteo Salvini, to dominate government with his bombastic approach to immigration. Indeed, the Five Star’s policy priorities have not only been disregarded, but the party has been left humiliated after the Italian Senate blocked a criminal case against Salvini for his refusal to allow 177 migrants to disembark a coast guard ship – flying in the face of the party’s erstwhile commitment to political integrity.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Five Star’s polling position has taken a nosedive in recent months, with the Lega usurping them as the dominant populist party. Furthermore, the Lega’s attempt to rebrand itself as a national party of the hard right – abandoning its former position of independence for the wealthier Northern regions of Italy, who it claims have been forced to subsidise the more economically depressed South. This has delivered election victories for the Right in the Southern regions of Abruzzo and Basilicata, as well as Sardinia, relegating the Five Star to a disappointing third-place in all three.
To add to the Five Star’s woes, a new conflict has emerged with their coalition partners over a high-speed rail line under construction between Turin and Lyon. While Five Star are concerned over the environmental impact of a long tunnel under the Alps and have delayed further construction, Lega are eager to back infrastructure investment in the North. Yet there are rumours that they may have ulterior motives; an open disagreement between the two parties could lead to the coalition falling apart, and with Lega likely to be the largest party in any new elections, they would be free to implement a more purist right-wing agenda with Berlusconi as their junior coalition partner. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party have recently elected the socialist Nicola Zingaretti as leader, which may well lead to the emergence of a united, credible alternative for the Five Star’s many left-leaning voters.
The Five Star Movement faces an impossible task in placating their coalition partners whilst simultaneously avoiding a mass exodus on the left. A series of remarkable yet unfortunate events have potentially torpedoed the Five Star’s electoral chances for the foreseeable future, perhaps irreconcilably so. What has become clear is that, in the end, promising everything to everyone is rarely a successful strategy for power.