Five Star Rebels Demand Di Maio Loosen Grip on Party After Election Rout

(Bloomberg) -- Lawmakers from the Five Star Movement are demanding immediate changes to the way their party is run and questioning its role in Italy’s coalition government after seeing its candidates routed in two regional elections this month.

A group of disaffected deputies and senior officials is calling on embattled leader Luigi Di Maio to return the party to its roots and give more power back to the rank-and-file members, according to people involved in the push, who asked not to be named because of party policies on sanctioning dissenters.

Five Star Rebels Demand Di Maio Loosen Grip on Party After Election Rout

Those changes would make it harder for Di Maio to keep his party in line as he tries to govern in partnership with Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League.

"We’re at a crossroads,” said Senator Elena Fattori, who joined the movement months after it was founded by comedian and rabble-rouser Beppe Grillo a decade ago. “By teaming up with Salvini we’ve lost support from the Left and not gained anything from the Right.”

Five Star won almost twice as many votes as the League in last March’s general election but has been comprehensively outmaneuvered since then. The movement trails its coalition partner by more than 10 percentage points in the most recent polls as the two leaders gear up for May’s European parliamentary elections.

Finance Minister Giovanni Tria on Tuesday told Di Maio and other leaders that business leaders are disappointed in the economy, claiming the government is at a “standstill” and the country is “blocked” by government inaction and coalition disputes on issues including a high-speed rail link to France, la Repubblica reported.

Threats and Concessions

Di Maio, the 32-year-old deputy prime minister and a relative novice in Italian politics, has become a focus for party discontent after losing a series of policy battles to Salvini and breaking election pledges as he wrestles with the dilemmas of governing.

Five Star Rebels Demand Di Maio Loosen Grip on Party After Election Rout

While Fattori has long been outspoken on party policy, she’s generally held back from taking personal shots at Di Maio. But after the movement lost almost 75 percent of its support in Sunday’s election in Sardinia, she’s had enough.

“The power is in the hands of a small group of people, and this is leading to a loss of consensus,” she said in an interview. “There is no dialogue, no debate, only rules imposed from above by Luigi Di Maio.”

‘Better Structure’

Di Maio on Tuesday appeared to recognize the threat and signaled he’s ready to make concessions to his critics.

“We need to have better structure, but my political leadership will only be up for discussion four years from now" when the coalition’s term ends, he said. “The Five Star Movement isn’t dead yet.”

Still, he also reminded would-be rebels that members who attack the movement’s policy positions in public can be expelled by a special committee.

In the wake of the Sardinia defeat, Di Maio is a damaged politician and “his leadership is up for discussion," said Paola Nugnes, a Five Star lawmaker who’s clashed with the party on policies and procedures.

Di Maio is weighing changes to Five Star’s structure and rules, including possibly allowing the movement to take part in electoral alliances with other parties and altering its position on term limits, La Stampa reported Wednesday. That latter change could see Di Maio’s own mandate as party chief extended to as long as 10 years, the newspaper said.

One of the lawmakers who asked not to be named said the party has been convulsed by a tribal war, with various factions seeking to sway the leadership. The net result is to weaken Five Star and strengthen the League, the lawmaker said.

The footsoldiers who helped drive the movement to its best-ever result last March have also been left demoralized by Di Maio’s failure to deliver on his campaign promises.

Massimo Battista was a member of Five Star’s administration in the southern city of Taranto when the party won 48 percent of the local vote in the general election with a pledge to close or clean up an outdated and dirty steel plant in the city.

Five Star Rebels Demand Di Maio Loosen Grip on Party After Election Rout

Battista rushed to Rome for talks with potential investors after a midnight call from Di Maio’s office in June. But in September Di Maio closed a deal with ArcelorMittal that had been lined up by the previous administration and failed to deliver on his promise.

A week later, Battista resigned from his local leadership position in the party.

"People feel betrayed," he said in an interview. "For Five Star, European elections will be a repeat of what happened in Sardinia."

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