(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The resignation of Luigi Di Maio as leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement is a move that smacks of desperation. The populist party that gatecrashed Italian politics faces crumbling support in the polls and deep internal divisions. It’s hard to see how it can bounce back even with a change at the top.
The decision adds to the sense of instability that mars Italy’s governing coalition of Five Star and the center-left Democrats. It may accelerate its collapse if enough parliamentarians were to conclude that this government is doomed to fail. But, in the long run, Italy would benefit from a possible disappearance of Five Star. It would certainly stabilize the political dynamics in the country, giving voters a more straightforward alternative between the left and the right — even if neither of those forces appear presently to have the answers to Italy’s ills.
In many ways, Di Maio is the perfect symbol of Five Star. At the age of 33 he has been propelled to senior government roles, first as minister of labor and economic development and then foreign minister (he will retain this position in spite of his resignation as party leader). A university dropout with no previous political experience, Di Maio had no qualification for either job.
In power he has failed to resolve Italy’s industrial crises — from the troubled steelmaker ILVA to the bankrupt airline Alitalia — and has contributed to the loss of Italy’s influence in Libya. Five Star is very good at screaming against Italy’s establishment, but offers no useful alternative.
Di Maio’s resignation isn’t a meaningful solution to his party’s problems either. Five Star became Italy’s biggest parliamentary party in the 2018 general elections, but has fared badly since in elections for the European Parliament and in a string of local votes. It is expected to do poorly again on Sunday in a regional election in Emilia-Romagna, where the Democrats are neck-and-neck with a right-wing coalition dominated by Matteo Salvini’s League.
Five Star has no clear long-term successor to Di Maio and its members are bitterly divided between those who want a closer relationship with the left and those who don’t. The movement remains popular in the country’s south thanks to its demands for greater regional redistribution. But it’s far from certain that it will survive even as a regional force given its internal contradictions.
Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, says the government won’t suffer as a result of Di Maio’s resignation. That’s wishful thinking. The youthful leader — who quit under pressure from within Five Star — will probably plot his return to the top in the movement’s first party congress, which will take place in March. That would inevitably destabilize the coalition. Five Star members of parliament are already peeling away from the group, unhappy with the party’s management.
The Democrat-Five Star coalition is only being held together by fear of a new election. Salvini and his allies are dominant in the polls, and many parliamentarians are terrified of losing their seats in new elections. However, some of them may try to accommodate the League by supporting elections in the hope of getting something in return. If that attitude prevails, the government is in trouble. Salvini could quickly become Italy’s new prime minister.
It would be hard to mourn the end of Five Star. Since its arrival in parliament in 2013, Italy’s politics has been effectively a tripolar system — with the left, the right, and the unquantifiable Five Star, which was famously reluctant to form coalitions. Even after it did, its governments have been incoherent and unstable. A straight fight between left and right would clarify the political offering. It may also contribute to more stable governments, which Italy needs badly.
Of course, this would be a first step only. A solid majority is necessary for meaningful economic reforms, but certainly not a guarantee that Salvini would deliver them. A right-wing government with him as prime minister would probably spend a lot of pointless energy in angry conflict with the European Union, over issues ranging from the budget to immigration. Meanwhile, Italy’s decline would continue.
Di Maio and Five Star have failed in their promise to renew Italy’s political system. Unfortunately, it’s hard to feel confidence in the alternatives.
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Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns 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.
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