Italy's Populist Insurgents Are Collapsing

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Five Star Movement stunned the world with its sudden rise to the top of Italian politics. Its abysmal showing in a string of local elections suggests its downfall could be just as quick.

The populist party’s candidate finished in an embarrassing third place in a regional vote in Sardinia this week. Five Star didn’t even manage to reach 10 percent of the vote, leaving it behind the League, its right-wing government coalition partner, and the center-left Democratic Party. The scale of the defeat was astonishing. In the general election last march, the movement came first by a long distance in the region – collecting more than 40 percent of the vote.

Luigi Di Maio, the party’s leader and Italy’s deputy prime minister, tried to downplay the result. He noted that Five Star always does worse in local elections, so any comparison with a year ago is like “comparing apples to oranges”. But the scale of the defeat in Sardinia was remarkable. It comes after an equally distressing third place just a couple of weeks ago in Abruzzo, another southern region that had also backed Five Star in large numbers in the general election.

Italy’s most extraordinary political story of the past decade is suffering a deep identity crisis. Having become the country’s largest party, Five Star has done little with the enormous support it mustered. It chose to form a coalition with the anti-immigration League, which is nominally its junior partner. But Matteo Salvini, the charismatic League leader, is acting as the government’s de facto leader, overshadowing Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, a technocrat handpicked by Five Star.

The movement has also reneged on a long list of promises. It failed to shut down ILVA, a steelmaker in the Southern region of Puglia which it had vowed to close for environmental reasons. Nor did it stop TAP, a gas pipeline, being built not far away. Finally, Five Star rescued Salvini from possible prosecution for refusing to let migrants disembark from a ship docked in Sicily – having said for years that politicians shouldn’t be treated any differently from other citizens. Just like the League, Five Star also flip-flopped on whether Italy should remain part of the euro. But while Salvini is cruising in the polls, Di Maio is sinking.

The collapse of Italy’s arch-populists was, in many ways, inevitable. They made far too many promises, which were always going to be impossible to meet. A protest party with no real experience of power, Five Star has struggled to fill government jobs with suitable candidates. The League, which has been around for three decades, has a deeper bench and can come across as the experienced coalition partner. 

Still, the speed of Five Star’s decline is breathtaking. The blame must go to Di Maio and the movement’s secretive leader, Davide Casaleggio, who runs its all-important internet operations. The two young activists have taken over from Beppe Grillo, the comedian who set up the movement, and Gianroberto Casaleggio, Davide’s father who masterminded the idea of web-based direct democracy. They made the decision to team up with Salvini, despite misgivings from the party’s left-wing. Casaleggio and Di Maio now face the prospect of a heavy defeat in the European Parliament elections, which are barely three months away.

The Five Star debacle holds important lessons for Salvini too. The League didn’t do particularly well in Sardinia, but it managed to win the region’s presidency with its traditional center-right allies, including Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. This follows a win in Abruzzo and months of strong polling numbers, which suggest the League would be easily the largest party were a general election held today.

So far, Salvini has ruled out a new vote, saying he expects the government to last a full term. But time is pressing. Italy’s economic crisis could worsen and the country’s center-left coalition, which is in tatters, might regroup eventually. Collapsing the government after the European elections must be tempting.

This makes Five Star’s position even more awkward. It needs to show voters it has an identity. But it also knows that the further it detaches from Salvini, the bigger the risk of a new election. It’s hard to recall a party that so dominated a general election becoming so weak, so quickly.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns and editorials on European economics for Bloomberg Opinion. He is also an economics columnist for La Repubblica and was a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.