In Italy, the largest governing party collapsed on Tuesday evening in an internal dispute over arms deliveries to Ukraine. Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio left the populist, anti-establishment party after falling out with current party leader and former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
The main reason for the quarrels was the party’s position on arms deliveries to Ukraine, which Conte rejects. Di Maio, on the other hand, is considered to support Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s line. Strictly speaking, however, the question was whether it is legitimate to use this dispute to collect votes – as the populist Five Star Party recently tried to do.
Di Maio’s answer is “no”. That’s why he left the party – and took at least 60 MPs with him, including many party leaders. As a result, the Five Stars will lose around a quarter of their MPs and their status as the largest group in the Italian parliament. The first party is now Matteo Salvini’s right-wing nationalist League.
The balance of power in Draghi’s broad governing coalition is thus shifting significantly. Di Maio wants to support Draghi’s government line with his new movement called “Insieme per il futuro” – together for the future. But the split has made the already fragile government alliance even more shaky and early elections more likely. These are bad prospects for Italy, which currently has enough problems due to the difficult economic situation, a period of drought and extremely high national debt.
So far, Di Maio and his party have been very closely linked. It is only thanks to the Five Stars that Di Maio, who is now 35, has risen from being a nobody to Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister within ten years. And the five stars have also benefited from Di Maio: As their top candidate, he made them the election winner in 2018 with 33 percent.
Today, however, only a third remains of this approval at twelve percent. The Five Stars have become the smallest of the important parties. And because elections are scheduled for next spring, party leader Conte is trying increasingly desperately to win back voters. In doing so, he is targeting the pacifist attitude that is widespread among the population – and is thus opposing Draghi’s line, even though his party is part of the coalition and, with Di Maio, is even the foreign minister.
Conte is increasingly making the mood against the arms deliveries to Ukraine and polemicizing against the increase in military spending. The Five Stars had voted in parliament in February for the deliveries and Conte had promised an increase in the defense budget as Prime Minister at the time.
The last proof that Conte was only concerned with catching votes and never with a real change of direction was provided on Tuesday: When Parliament voted on Draghi’s line before the EU summit, Conte and the five stars did not oppose them, but voted for it .
Di Maio used this moment to leave the party because of the duplicity of the Five Stars: “It is irresponsible to jeopardize the stability of the government because you don’t have enough votes,” he explained. And further: “In the face of Putin’s atrocities, we cannot continue to be ambiguous, we cannot be on the wrong side of history.”
Di Maio’s farewell speech was also a reckoning with the party’s populism that made it great: “I believe that the time of hypocrisy is over, the time of those who propose simple solutions to complex problems.” Great words from Di Maio, who, just a few years ago, celebrated having “abolished poverty” when his party introduced a basic income similar to Hartz IV.
But in the four years in government, Di Maio has obviously come of age politically. His statements are less and less marked by populism. And especially since Draghi has been Prime Minister, he has stood out as a committed member of the government.
But of course this episode in Italian politics wouldn’t be complete if it weren’t also about staying in power: Because Di Maio and the MPs who are following him in his new movement are also preventing their political career from automatically ending in the coming year . There is currently an upper limit of two mandates for the five stars. After that, politicians are not allowed to run again – so Di Maio’s career would have ended when this legislature expired.
The striving to retain power is also what suggests that the governing coalition will not fall apart immediately despite the chaos and that early elections will have to be called. That would not be in the interest of the parties, because the parliament has been reduced by a third: after the next elections there will be 600 fewer MPs.