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Five Star Movement split over Ukraine unsettles Italy’s ruling coalition

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Turbulence returned to Italian politics this week thanks to a fallout between the two top figures of the Five Star Movement. Party leader Giuseppe Conte opposes Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s support for Ukraine. Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio fervently supports Draghi’s approach, so he stormed out of Five Star on Tuesday, took dozens of MPs and split into two, the largest member of Italy’s government of national unity.

Simmering tensions between Di Maio and ex-Prime Minister Conte came to a boil late Tuesday night when Di Maio – the former Five Star leader and one of its most famous faces – announced he would be leaving the populist party, along with at least 60 of her 227 MPs because of their disagreement over Ukraine.

Conte has repeatedly criticized Draghi for sending weapons to Ukraine and boosting Italian defense spending. “Our response cannot be a race to rearm,” he said Politics in April.

Di Maio, a strong supporter of Draghi’s stance on Ukraine, has expressed growing annoyance at Conte’s stance in recent weeks, accusing Five Star and its leader of “immaturity”.

The di Maio-Conte feud over Ukraine arose in March when the five-star leadership opposed the government’s plans to increase Italian defense spending from 1.4 percent of GDP to the 2 percent NATO target by 2024, in instead of in 2028 as originally planned.

Enrico Letta, leader of the center-left Democratic Party (PD) and prime minister from 2013 to 2014, warned that Five Star’s demand would risk overthrowing the national unity coalition — which under politically unaligned Prime Minister Draghi all major parties of Italy unites except the far-right Brothers of Italy. The coalition accepted Five Star’s demand.

‘Super Mario’

Formerly an obscure law professor with no political experience or partisanship, Conte was called up as prime minister in 2018 for a coalition between Five Star and the far-right League, after the two parties emerged from the general election as the strongest forces in Italian politics.

League leader Matteo Salvini withdrew his party from the coalition in 2019, leaving the PD in his place. PD’s Greatest Beast Matteo Renzi – Prime Minister from 2014 to 2016; a centrist in the form of his idol Tony Blair – would always be an uneasy supporter of a coalition dominated by Five Star. Renzi left the PD to found his own party, Italia Viva, but still officially supported Conte’s government.

Renzi-Conte’s inevitable failure happened in early 2021 over the all-important EU Covid recovery funds. As Italy was to receive €191.5 billion from the €750 billion package, Renzi argued that Conte’s plans were “without ambition and soul”, pulling Italia Viva out of the coalition and collapsing Conte’s premiership.

At this sensitive moment for Covid-ravaged Italy, President Sergio Mattarella called Mario Draghi out of retirement and invited him to lead a government of national unity.

Both in Italy and abroad, there is a widespread sense that if anyone can tame the country’s recurrent political and economic crises, it is Draghi. President of the European Central Bank from 2011 to 2019, Draghi was hailed as the “savior of the euro” – not to mention “Super Mario” – after his pledge to “do everything” to help crisis-ridden currency markets rescue in 2012.

Draghi’s aura of technocratic expertise paid off for the Italian economy. In June 2021, the EU approved its plans to spend that huge tranche of recovery funds. In December, Fitch gave Italy a rare credit rating upgrade. The economy bounced back of Covid with a growth of 6.5 percent in 2021, better than government forecasts.

Five Star ‘don’t know where to go’

These twists and turns of Five Star’s days in the office have seen their popularity plummet. The fact that they were in government robbed them of their rebellious appeal. But they have not reaped the benefits of being in government: Draghi was credited for his economic success after Covid. After Five Star took 33 percent of the vote in the 2018 election, a steady decline in ratings now remains at just 13 percent, according to Politico .’s poll aggregate

“The Five Star Movement is in crisis; it doesn’t know where to go and it faces the loss of many of its MPs in next year’s elections,” said Maurizio Cotta, a professor of politics at the University of Siena. “Everyone in Five Star is scared.”

In Conte’s eyes, the war in Ukraine appears to be giving his beleaguered side a chance. polls show a majority of Italians disagree with sending arms to Kiev and increasing defense spending, even though most also condemn the Russian invasion. At the same time, all of Five Star’s rivals – even Salvini; even Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy, supports Draghi’s views on Ukraine.

“The Italian people are not pro-Putin, but many of them are skeptical of NATO,” noted Daniele Albertazzi, a professor of politics at the University of Surrey.

Since the end of World War II, Italian governments have been axiomatically Atlantic, but in light of compensatory phenomena within Italian society. Christian Democracy was the hegemonic political force during the Cold War, entrenching Italy in NATO with close ties to the US – but this big-top party nonetheless contained a strong pacifist tendency rooted in Catholic social thinking. The other major power in the so-called First Republic of Italy, the Communist Party, was shut out because of Italy-US alignment in the Cold War. The Communists eventually rejected the Soviet Union, but remained wary of Washington.

So the relative popularity of pacifism and anti-Americanism in Italy can be “explained by the two main political cultures of the post-war era, Catholicism and Communism respectively,” said Ferdinando Nelli Feroci, formerly a senior Italian diplomat and European commissioner. president of the Institute of International Affairs in Rome.

At the moment, Conte is taking advantage of a sense of war fatigue that is evident in Italian public opinion; he is trying to increase the popularity of his party,’ Nelli Feroci continued. “The whole issue can be explained in light of the upcoming elections.”

Analysts say many of the factors pushing Di Maio out of Five Star are also related to the trajectory of a popular move from outsiders to an unpopular ruling party. The “obvious, cynical” explanation for the jump ship di Maio involves three things, Albertazzi noted. First, it makes sense to leave if the party “isn’t going to get the same number of votes”. Secondly, even in the unlikely event that five-star plateaus lose their jobs compared to last time, many MPs will still lose their jobs as the number of seats in the Italian parliament increases. cut by a third† And finally, an internal party rule means that Five Star MPs cannot serve two consecutive terms, which would affect Di Maio and many of his colleagues.

‘Afraid of being alone on the continent’

Like his former party, di Maio experienced a journey from outsider to insider. At the age of 31, he became a minister in the First Coalition of Five Star. Before entering politics, Di Maio sold drinks and sandwiches in Napoli’s football stadium.

“Imagine you are Di Maio, if you know his past,” Cotta said. ‘Now he is Minister of Foreign Affairs. Everything is prepared for him by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but still he has opportunities to go around the world, to meet important people. In the end, he found a role for himself.”

After going from outsider to insider, Di Maio has “picked up the idea” that Italy should maintain its pro-European, Atlanticist approach because “that’s where Italy has always gone,” Albertazzi said.

Di Maio would not be the only one to think in this direction. Experts are convinced that – even if the war further fuels the cost of living – Italy will continue to go where it has always gone and not break with the Western consensus on Ukraine.

While competition for popularity is natural ahead of the polls scheduled for June 2023, the parties understand that the Italian public values ​​the stability of the coalition of national unity under the esteemed Draghi, Nelli Feroci said: “No party in the coalition has an interest in provoking a provocation. government crisis ahead of the expected elections. Even the likes of Conte and Salvini understand that pulling the plug on the coalition during this time of crisis within Europe’s borders – not to mention a troubled economic context – would be seen as highly unreasonable.”

Furthermore, the Cold War dynamics are still at play, Cotta concluded; the pacifist and anti-American aspects in Italian public opinion are much weaker than the desire to keep Italy anchored in the European project and the Atlantic alliance: “People can grumble and say they don’t want to pay for the war et cetera et cetera . But could anyone imagine doing it alone, without being together with France, Germany and the United States? That is not a serious position. Italians are very afraid of being alone on the continent.”

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