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The 5-Star Movement’s recent electoral performances at regional level have seen it receive a battering in regions where its support was thought to be solid at times struggling to score even half the vote share it received at national level.

Considering its previous successes in Southern Italy, this should worry the Movement’s leadership, and suggests that its electoral success might have been a one-time fluke, with its long-term viability under serious discussion. So why and how is this happening?

The recent regional elections in Abruzzo, Sardinia and Basilicata might not seem like events from which to glean major political truths, and most probably they aren’t. However, it follows on from trends that have been observed in a few small-scale elections elsewhere, and point to the rapid disillusionment of the electorate with the 5-Star-Movement and its myriad promises. So why, just under a year after having won the most votes of any single party, is the 5-Star Movement performing so abysmally, even in regions where it won large-scale support? Before we proceed, it’s important to contextualise just how badly they performed. In Sardinia, the Movement won roughly 42% of the vote at the 2018 national election, and won a clean sweep of seats. It’s normal for a party in power to underperform in lower-level elections as smaller parties get a chance to win visibility, and more personal ties determine voter preference, but to go from 42% to 11% in less than a year requires serious discontent.

Imitation is the worst form of flattery

One of their biggest downfalls has been the attempt by leadership to imitate their current coalition partner Matteo Salvini in his rhetoric, thereby alienating a large part of their voter base. As a catch-all party, the 5-Star Movement could use vague notions of policy formulation and the rhetoric of discontent with “business as usual” to hoover votes from all sides, and for as long as they were in opposition, it was a good tactic. That said, a catch-all party can’t form a catch-all government, especially not when in coalition with another party. It’s normal for a party to shift tone in a coalition agreement to provide coherence on certain key issues. However, party leader Luigi Di Maio has more or less allowed Matteo Salvini and the League to dictate the agenda, and he has rarely dared present a vision that deviates even slightly from Salvini’s line on most issues, or has simply stayed silent. Faced with such attempts to copy a hard-right line on most issues, most people prefer the original to a copy, so Salvini has been able to capitalise on an image as a politician with a clearer and more consistent message than that offered by the 5-Star Movement’s constant flip-flopping.

Luigi Di Maio with coalition partner Matteo Salvini

As a consequence, the right-leaning voters that originally plumped for the 5-Star Movement have shifted to Salvini, and the left-wing voters the party siphoned from elsewhere are moving back towards other parties, and here the Movement seriously risks going under. For as long the centre-left Partito Democratico (Democratic Party or PD for short) was embroiled in a poisonous debate on its future leadership, left-wing voters didn’t have viable alternatives except a constellation of small parties whose small size ( polling at often less than 2% at the national level) means their ability to campaign at the national level is limited. The being said, the PD has finally elected a new leader, Nicola Zingaretti, and in doing so has started the process of moving the party beyond the image of its former leader Matteo Renzi, which arguably ruined its chances at the last election. Although the party and its centre-left partners are still lagging behind the centre-right to right-wing groupings Matteo Salvini is able to convene at the regional level, it has started to slowly regain lost ground, coming second in all the recent regional elections. In fact, recent polls have seen it regain parity and even slightly overtake the 5-Star Movement.

At a crossroads

Now the 5-Star Movement finds itself in a difficult situation, but it has very few choices going forward. It can no longer go on the anti-establishment rhetoric and the claim to break from business as usual. Both in terms of the policies they ultimately endorsed, their sycophancy vis-à-vis Salvini and the League, as well as the numerous scandals involving its MPs, the Movement has very comfortably mainstreamed itself into establishment politics, continuing with business as usual in wonderfully comical and hypocritical style. Now, it needs to define its policy positions clearly. Pretending to have no ideological orientation will no longer do, nor will tagging along with the party with which it finds itself governing with. Additionally, the party’s discontented former members are gradually finding their own dimension and making their disillusionment with the Movement’s hypocrisy and lack of transparency crystal clear. Notably, Federico Pizzarotti, who was elected the 5-Star Movement mayor of Parma in 2012, left the party in 2016 due to conflicts with the hierarchy, and has since continued to govern Parma as an independent, taking most of the Movement’s councillors in Parma with him. He has since founded his own political party, Italia in Comune (Italy in Common), which positions itself as a progressive centre-left party, and is running in the European Parliament elections in coalition with Emma Bonino’s Più Europa party.

As a clear manifestation of disillusionment with the party, it could easily lead to more figures acting as a coalescing agent for such discontent, and given the high rate of defection from the party at all levels of governance, the Movement could bleed further. As usual, it’s easy to work in opposition and attack all that is done in government, but one must expect clear alternatives, not just rhetoric and ridiculous promises. The Movement’s honeymoon period was always going to be short, having won votes mainly out of public frustration rather than concrete support, and now they risk disintegrating further. Their leaders have demonstrated just how unscrupulous they are, and rather than demonstrate a modicum of bravery and give the party a sense of direction, my bet is that they will jump at the possibility of hitching themselves personally to stronger party, and in doing so conserve their personal position and power. Even if the Movement and its more positive ideals will soon collapse under the weight of its leaders’ lies, these same leaders will continue to win votes and conserve their privileges, thanks to chicanery and blind loyalty.

The buffoonery is now on the way out, the poison is here to stay.

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Luca Contrino
Originally from Italy, Luca Contrino has a Master's Degree in International and European Relations at Linköping University in Sweden. A lover of travel and languages.

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