Italy’s Five Star Movement: From Rising Star to Shooting Star?

Italy’s Five Star Movement: From Rising Star to Shooting Star?

The Five Star Movement’s unclear ideological identity ensured its success in Italy’s 2018 election. Today, the Movement faces dismal regional election results, growing unpopularity, and a government crisis. Will the party acknowledge its mainstream conversion, or will it resume its anti-establishment narrative?

Italy’s ruling Five Star Movement (5SM) has had three difficult years since entering elected office in 2018. On top of juggling strenuous coalitions with hard-right parties first and centre-left ones later, it has also faced sustained decline in opinion polls, intraparty backstabbing, a global pandemic, and the economic hardships that have ensued. 

To further complicate matters, Italy’s recent government crisis left the Five Star leadership position hanging by a thread. They struggled to keep the weakened majority government afloat and to avoid snap elections, which would have placed them back in the opposition since they are now Italy’s fourth most popular party

Will this sudden shift reshape the political landscape in Italy as we know it, or will a more conventional political structure prevail?

From a Movement to a Party 

When the Five Star Movement notorious for  refusing to subscribe to the traditional Left–Right political paradigm — came to power in 2018 it appeared the idealistic voice of the people had finally prevailed against the political élite.

The Movement’s neither-left-nor-right valence populism’ — campaigning over consensus-gathering, non-positional issues including direct democracy, corruption in Rome, and integrity in politics — may have worked well when the party was in the opposition, appealing to disillusioned voters on both the Right and the Left.

However, since finding itself at the helm of government the Movement’s simplification of post-ideological issues did not translate well to the challenges faced by one of the world’s largest economies. It quickly transpired the party has no clear stance on complex issues dominating Italian politics such as immigration, economic stagnation, and (more recently) an effective response to a global health threat. 

Moreover, the Movement has become a de facto part of the establishment it once critiqued.

First, the party underwent a general shift, going from being the (unorganised) voice of the resistance against Rome’s stubborn status quo to a structured party. It adopted a traditional party structure divided between national, regional, and local levels, and it ditched its previous virtual makeup, thereby lessening the role played by its activists.

Second, the Movement’s staunch refusal to form alliances with mainstream parties — one of its 2018 campaign’s central tenets — only lasted until it entered a coalition with the hard-right Northern League a few weeks later. Once that coalition crumbled, the Five Star leadership entered a second coalition government with the centre-left Democratic Party.

Crucially, when Five Star leadership allied with the Right, they lost support from their left-wing voters; then when they joined the Centre-Left in a new coalition government, they lost those on the Right.

This gave credibility to 5SM’s opponents, who have long accused the Movement of defying political classification because it lacks a clear political ideology.

Ultimately, the party may retain some loyal devotees, but it is unclear how long it will take for them to shift further towards the Left or the Right

Welcome to Politics

Since it entered elected office in 2018, the Five Star Movement went from polling at 33% — a first for Italy’s notoriously fractured politics —  to 14% currently. What factors can explain such dismal losses?

First, the perception that Five Star leadership mishandled the second wave of Covid-19 infections has cost the party valuable electoral support, especially when Italy’s December 2020 death toll climbed to the top of European rankings.

Second, the debate over mass Covid-19 vaccination has severely damaged the party, which grew in popularity in the past in part because of its unabashed vaccine skepticism.

Since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, the party has embraced what many of its supporters see as the “scientific mainstream”. In turn, this has fueled animosity both within party ranks and supporters. Four 5SM Ministers quit the party altogether, accusing the Five Star leadership of corrupting the movement. For its part, Five Star leadership has further distanced itself from vaccine skepticism, showing the door to some of the party’s most fringe figures.

However, this came at a high price. The party went from being the most supported party in Italy to the fourth most popular one. It is losing vaccine skeptics — which make up a significant portion of the Italian electorate — to the hard-right Northern League and the Brothers of Italy, each polling respectively first and third place in recent polls

Third, last year’s regional elections saw dismal losses for the 5SM across nine important regions. This underlines the Movement’s weak local foundations: at the regional and municipal level, the centre-left Democratic Party and the hard-right Northern League and Brothers of Italy have stronger and more deeply rooted local presences. 

Lastly, it appears the Five Star Movement may not fit within Italy’s long-standing bipolarism between the Right (led by the Northern League, Forza Italia, and Brothers of Italy) and the powerful Democratic Party on the Centre-Left.

In fact, the lack of a clear ideological message coupled with an ambiguous political identity may have helped the Movement in the short-term when it governed alongside the hard-right first, and the centre-left afterwards. However, it has also spoiled the illusion the party can be a key actor in coalition-making

Where Next? Two Possible Scenarios

It transpires the Movement needs an urgent change of tack if it wishes to maintain a significant role within the Italian political landscape. Two potential scenarios lie ahead.

The first possible solution for the 5SM to stay afloat would be to embrace the nature of politics and ditch its ambivalent political identity, a position the Movement’s former leader Luigi di Maio has championed recently. After all, the party is yet to acknowledge its conversion to the mainstream, and it appears the leadership is biding its time before showing its cards. However, accepting the party’s transformation would fuel the existing perception they have betrayed their original mission and joined the élite, which in turn would cost them valuable votes and further push them towards political extinction. 

Meanwhile, some believe the only way the Five Star Movement can recover its reputation is by leaving the burdensome role of decision-maker and returning to the opposition. The party can only credibly retain its underdog status if it retreats to its original role as ‘decision-breaker’, lobbying against corruption in the system without having to be at the centre of it. 

Though the Movement is still clearly torn between these two competing strategies, if current voting intention polls are anything to go by, reclaiming its anti-system credentials and returning to the opposition may be the most viable option.


Categories: Europe, Politics

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