Italy’s Five Star plans break with the past

The transition from anti-establishment insurgent to member of an Italian governing coalition led by a former president of the European Central Bank has not been easy for the Five Star Movement. 

Born in 2009 from a wave of discontent with the political and financial establishment, the populist party has undergone a number of changes over the years.

After exceeding expectations during its early years and emerging as the largest single party at the 2018 general election, Five Star disappointed some of its supporters by entering coalition governments with the far-right League and then with the centre-left Democratic party (PD). It also backtracked from some of its previous positions, including its support for a referendum on the euro.

Five Star now faces its greatest challenge yet. The decision in February to support the new government led by former ECB chief Mario Draghi has further undermined its anti-establishment appeal. Five Star, which is currently polling at about 17 per cent, is seeking to reinvent itself ahead of the next general election in 2022, leaving behind once and for all its previous image as a purely obstructionist force in Italian politics.

The man chosen to oversee that transformation is former prime minister Giuseppe Conte. He became de facto leader of Five Star at the beginning of March, and last week announced his intention to “refound” the movement.

“If you look back you can be proud”, Conte told Five Star lawmakers during a video conference on Thursday. “Some mistakes were made . . . [but] not enough to obscure the many battles and reforms that you have fought and carried out,” he said in a speech with a notably pro-European tone.

Five Star co-founder Beppe Grillo © Max Rossi/Reuters

In September, a national referendum backed one of the movement’s longstanding campaign pledges: to reduce the number of members of both houses of the Italian parliament.

“Conte has a tough nut to crack,” said Antonio Padellaro, writer and former editor of the Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano.

“The world of Five Star was born in the streets and squares on the outskirts of Italian cities, made of angry citizens that still feel left behind by the establishment and globalisation. It’s a radical world used to expressing itself through a very harsh and explicit language. It is a world still in turmoil, and still very far from Conte . . . with an approach that is certainly way more Christian Democrat and moderate than the original core of the movement,” Padellaro said.

According to Giuseppe Brescia, a senior Five Star lawmaker, “when the movement came to power, everything changed”.

“We knew that certain policies could not be implemented by staying in opposition, but by forming a government we also exposed ourselves to a series of transitions that represented many small traumas that took us progressively away from the base,” said Brescia.

“I don’t think our choices have always been understood by our supporters, who still see the movement’s mission as pure protest and they never, ever imagined that they would see us sitting at the same table as Mario Draghi,” Brescia added.

After Conte’s intervention, Enrico Letta, another former prime minister and the newly elected leader of the PD, said: “I bet on the [successful] evolution of the movement. I want a coalition.”

A decisive shift towards a more progressive agenda and a Five Star alliance with the PD is seen as likely by many analysts. At the next election the two parties will face a rightwing coalition comprising Matteo Salvini’s League, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

But carving out a distinctive position for itself on the political spectrum and winning back support will be difficult for Five Star, said Giovanni Orsina, director of the Luiss School of Government in Rome.

“Certainly the Draghi government forced the pace of a transformation that had been taking place for some time, both for Five Star and other parties. However . . . the difficulty of transforming protest into concrete policies is there for all to see. What comes next? It’s very hard to find an answer to that now.”

According to Lucia Corso, a professor at the Kore University of Enna, Five Star is confronting a challenge that every populist or protest party encounters sooner or later.

“The perennial protest aimed at endless vetoes is very difficult to turn into a real project,” she said. “In fact, Conte’s words were very general and it is still difficult to sketch the contours of what Five Star will become. But what is clear is the strong desire to break away completely from the past.”

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