Schism in Five Star
Toby Abse examines the murky, self-serving reasons behind the latest split in a party once touted as rebels against the hated political caste
On June 21, the right-populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S - Five Star Movement) suffered the most serious parliamentary split - as 51 deputies and 11 senators deserted it in a single afternoon. This massive split has deprived M5S of its treasured status as the largest single parliamentary group (Matteo Salvini’s rightwing Lega is now the largest group in parliament). M5S’s parliamentary strength had already been gradually eroded over time, but on the morning of June 21 it still had 155 deputies and 72 senators (compared with the 227 deputies and 112 senators it had obtained in the 2018 general election).
The split was engineered by M5S’s former capo politico (political leader), Luigi Di Maio, the joint deputy prime minister in Giuseppe Conte’s first government (2018-19), and foreign minister in both Conte’s second administration (2019‑21) and Mario Draghi’s ‘national unity’ government (February 2021 onwards). Di Maio’s ostensible justification for sabotaging the future of the party he had first helped to found, and then led to victory in the 2018 general election, is the utterly specious claim that the current M5S leader, Giuseppe Conte, had abandoned the party’s Europeista (ie, pro-European Union) and Atlanticist stance in foreign policy, thus undermining both the foreign minister and the premier within Nato and the EU.
Leaving to one side the fact that M5S was originally neither pro-EU nor Atlanticist, and that in earlier days Di Maio himself had made some of M5S’s most extreme statements of opposition to Nato and the EU, this is an absurd distortion of Conte’s current position in relation to the war in Ukraine. All Conte has done is to rather intermittently express opposition to any further dispatch of Italian arms to Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, and to call for Italy to play a more vigorous role in working towards first a ceasefire and then a negotiated solution to the conflict. Whilst this view differs from the extremely bellicose sentiments repeatedly expressed by Joe Biden and Boris Johnson, it is not so far removed from the stance of French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholtz - neither of whom are quite as subservient to Washington as Italian premier Mario Draghi.
In reality, the motives of Di Maio and his 62 supporters are much more self-interested, and have little connection with Nato and the EU. The original rules of M5S, drawn up at its foundation, stated that no elected representative should serve for more than two terms in the Italian parliament, the European parliament, municipal councils or regional assemblies. This strict limit was based on the notion that all M5S elected officials were ‘citizens’ or ‘spokespeople’ - not professional career politicians belonging to the hated casta (political caste).
The very demagogic campaign against the casta has already rebounded on M5S, in that the party’s undemocratic proposal to reduce the number of Italian parliamentarians by more than a third - which gained overwhelming support when put to the electorate in a confirmatory referendum - means that there will be far fewer parliamentary seats available to M5S in the next general election, scheduled for spring 2023. The resultant intense competition for re-election has meant that those M5S parliamentarians still in their first term are keen to preserve this rule, whilst those in their second term have been trying to change it. Needless to say, both Di Maio and the overwhelming majority of the parliamentarians involved in the breakaway are second-termers, first elected in 2013, while most of Conte’s remaining supporters are first-termers, elected in 2018.
There is also a strong correlation between support for Di Maio and failure to keep up with the required monthly payments of a proportion of parliamentary salaries to M5S party funds. The sharp contrast between, on the one hand, the pious statements of the incoming M5S parliamentarians in 2013 about not claiming any of their potentially huge parliamentary expenses unless absolutely necessary and promising to hand over a large chunk of their massive salaries to the party, and, on the other, the grasping, avaricious practice of so many of them is clear proof of the hollowness of their populist, anti-casta rhetoric.
The career of the 35-year-old Di Maio is probably the purest instance of this sort of shameless hypocrisy. He was first elected to parliament at 25, and rapidly rose to become deputy speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, then was elected party leader when barely 31, before ascending to those great offices of state mentioned above.
Di Maio’s pre-parliamentary curriculum vitae is very unimpressive, to say the least. He never completed his degree, and the only official job he is known to have had is that of being one of the stewards at Naples football matches. However, many suspect that he sometimes did a little cash-in-hand work for his father - a small construction company boss, who often got into trouble for underpaying labourers or dodging taxes, and was, needless to say, a lifelong neo-fascist extremist. That might explain Di Maio’s virulent racism - one of his earliest public utterances was to describe refugee ships as “sea taxis”, and he shared the ‘let them drown’ approach of Matteo Salvini - his fellow deputy prime minister in the first Conte government.
De Maio’s appalling ignorance about Latin American history and geography, demonstrated in his notorious remark about “Pinochet’s Venezuela” (!), did not suggest that he was cut out to be a foreign minister in the near future. Moreover, his friendly meeting, when already deputy prime minister, with some of the most extreme rightwing elements of the French Gilets Jaunes (including a man who advocated a military coup - an incident that led the French government to recall their ambassador from Rome) hardly suggested that he had the diplomatic skills required for such a post, let alone that he was a sincere Europeista.
Whilst Di Maio is distinctly lacking in both principles and general knowledge, he does possess a considerable degree of low cunning. The timing of the split was impeccable, in that he trapped his adversary, Giuseppe Conte, into instructing his M5S parliamentarians to vote for a Senate resolution on Ukraine that referred back to the original ‘Ukraine decree’ of March 1, which had given Draghi the power to send whatever type and quantity of arms he felt appropriate before the end of December 2022. Only after Conte had agreed to the government coalition’s compromised text, and all M5S senators had duly voted for it, was Di Maio’s well-planned split made public. Conte had only very reluctantly agreed to the text at the last minute, whilst the parliamentary debate on Draghi’s statement to the Senate was still in progress, despite it containing only a meaningless phrase - “the necessary and wide involvement of the chambers” - that pretended to be a response to Conte’s demand that Draghi’s future arms shipments should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. This more or less unconditional surrender on Conte’s part was a desperate effort to keep Di Maio and his supporters on side. It meant that Conte was not able to clearly differentiate what remained of M5S from the rest of Draghi’s ‘national unity’ coalition and that he felt compelled to instruct the remaining M5S deputies to vote for an identical resolution in the lower chamber the following morning.
Quite apart from humiliating his rival, Di Maio was, of course, able to gain extra credit with Draghi for preventing a potential governmental crisis on the eve of an important EU summit. This trickery means that Conte is now trapped inside a governmental coalition which no longer requires the votes of his vestigial M5S groups in either the Senate or the Chamber, since Di Maio’s vacuously named new party, Insieme per il Futuro (‘Together for the Future’), could supply enough votes to keep Draghi in office. Whilst Conte and his supporters claim that by staying inside the government they can fight for M5S proposals like a legal minimum wage, and protect the growing numbers in absolute poverty from raging inflation, this is not particularly convincing.
Anybody who watched the televised Senate debate could hear M5S senators express considerable discontent with Draghi’s neoliberal domestic policy, and show an evident lack of enthusiasm for his bellicose stance on Ukraine, before dutifully voting in favour of the coalition line. There was something rather pathetic about this spectacle, although it was not quite as saddening as hearing Loredana De Petris of the soft-left Liberi e Uguali (‘Free and Equal’ - Leu) make a speech allegedly summing up the reasons for Leu’s decision to vote for the coalition resolution that - almost unbelievably - failed to mention the war at all, and was devoted to arguing the case for an ‘ecological transition’, which it is quite clear that Draghi’s ‘minster for ecological transition’, Roberto Cingolani, has absolutely no intention of proceeding with.
The votes in the Senate - 219 for the government resolution, 20 against and 22 abstentions (the latter from the neo-fascists of Fratelli d’Italia or FdI) - and the Chamber - 410 for the government, 29 against, 34 abstentions from FdI - show that parliamentary militarism is as strong as it was when parliament first voted to arm Zelensky at the beginning of March. FdI’s motive for abstaining was not that they had any reservations about the increase in armaments shipments, but that they felt that Draghi was not being bellicose enough. Parliamentary opposition is almost exclusively confined to former M5S parliamentarians, who had either opposed their party joining Draghi’s coalition in February 2021 or, in a handful of cases, had left M5S in disgust with its involvement in the original coalition with the Lega back in 2018-19. The largest group of these dissidents in the Senate is called Costitutione, Ambiente, Lavoro (CAL - Constitution, Environment, Labour), and includes, amongst others, a convert to the Partito Comunista (the most Stalinist of Italy’s communist fragments), whose attack on the prime minister seemed to succeed in puncturing Draghi’s glacial calm and getting him genuinely annoyed.
M5S, which had already sunk to 12.6% in the opinion polls prior to the split and did badly in the first round of this year’s local elections on June 12, is probably in terminal decline. Although Di Maio’s new party is estimated by most professional pollsters to have only around 2% or 3% support, the usual outcome of Italian party splits is to leave the two warring fragments with less than their original combined total. Whilst the life of Di Maio’s Insieme per il Futuro may well be a brief one, with a wipe-out at the next general election, Conte’s prospects are not particularly rosy either, given that other figures on the so-called centre, such as Matteo Renzi and Carlo Callenda, have been far from friendly to Di Maio in the days since he split with M5S.
Conte’s best bet would have been to precipitate, rather than to try to avoid, the inevitable split with Di Maio, and to walk out of Draghi’s government with as many parliamentarians as were willing to adopt an anti-war and anti-neoliberal stance. This is what Marco Travaglio and the editorial team of Il Fatto Quotidiano (the daily paper closest to M5S) clearly wanted him to do, as well as being the outcome that some of Conte’s parliamentary loyalists claim they would have favoured in their off-the-record conversations with journalists.
If Conte waits until the autumn to break with Draghi over the budget (which, given Italy’s slowing growth and rising inflation), it will probably be too late to revive M5S as a serious electoral force. Some M5S parliamentarians seem to be suggesting that Conte should break with Draghi over economic and environmental issues in the next few weeks, but this would require a rapid and decisive move, which seems somewhat alien to this rather hesitant man, who generally prefers compromise to confrontation. However, matters could come to a head soon, as a result of a recent telephone conversation in which Draghi told Grillo to sack Conte as M5S leader (Grillo, who is the source of this story, now denies the conversation occurred, or at least that Draghi said something like this. However, Grillo’s relationship with the truth is about as tortured as that of Boris Johnson, and Draghi’s denial is politically understandable). Conte’s anger towards both Draghi and Grillo may conceivably lead him to act more decisively than usual.
In terms of the more general political situation, the M5S split is likely to push the Partito Democratico (PD - a merger of former centre-left parties, including former ‘communists’) even further to the right, as its parliamentarians - predominantly ex-Renzians of a neoliberal rather than social democratic persuasion - would argue that various ‘centrist’ fragments would be better allies than Conte’s M5S. With Giorgia Meloni’s FdI on 23.1%, the Lega on 16.8% and Forza Italia on 7.4%, the so-called ‘centre-right’ under neo-fascist leadership is a much more coherent combination than anything the PD (now on 22.7%) is capable of knitting together, given its apparent lack of partners who could achieve percentages in double figures.