Five Star party splits as war in Ukraine shakes up Italian politics

Italy’s Five Star Movement, the largest party in Mario Draghi’s national unity government, is split after its leaders fall out over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Rome’s military aid in Kyiv.

The anti-establishment Five Star led a populist wave in the 2018 election, courting disgruntled Italians with rhetoric against political elites and EU bureaucrats in Brussels. But after four years in power, the party is haemorrhaging support and is divided over its stance on the war in Ukraine.

Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, one of the most prominent Five Star personalities, strongly supports Draghi’s unwavering support for Kyiv and supports the supply of arms, in line with the US and EU.

But party leader Giuseppe Conte, who preceded Draghi as prime minister, is critical, saying arming Ukraine only prolongs the conflict.

Tensions came to a head on Tuesday night, as Di Maio said he was quitting Five Star – and taking at least 60 of its 227 lawmakers with him – to form a new pro-government parliamentary group that will remain a member of the coalition in power. .

Although the Five Star schism has no immediate repercussions on the stability of the Draghi government, there is speculation that Conte could eventually withdraw his most radical wing from the governing coalition party.

Five Star “had a duty to back the government unambiguously,” Di Maio told a late-night news conference after a day of intense speculation about his impending withdrawal. “At this historic moment, supporting European and Atlanticist values ​​cannot be considered a fault.”

The implosion of Five Star highlights how the war in Ukraine is disrupting politics in Italy, which traditionally has warm ties to Russia, has strong pacifist leanings – actively encouraged by the Catholic Church – and historically wary of Washington’s role on the international scene.

Since the Russian invasion in late February, Draghi, the former president of the European Central Bank installed as prime minister amid a political crisis last year, has upended Italian foreign policy, showing little sympathy for Moscow. and pushing the EU towards stronger cooperation. coordinated action to support Ukraine.

But as the conflict drags on, Draghi’s hardline approach becomes an increasingly difficult national issue for the parties in his ruling coalition, especially as the disruptive economic consequences hit Italian households and next year’s general elections loom.

“Public opinion is not the same as government opinion,” said Daniele Albertazzi, a politics professor at the University of Surrey. “Most of the public opinion is not pro-Putin and pro-Russia, but they are very skeptical about NATO’s motives and the extent to which they could inflame the situation and make it worse.”

Luigi Scazzieri, a senior fellow at the Center for European Reform, said the war appeared poised to emerge as the prism through which other domestic political disputes will be viewed ahead of next year’s general election. .

“War becomes this global phenomenon that has all these searing consequences in terms of energy, food security, migration and economic recession,” he said. “It’s becoming a very big issue that has divisions within parties as well as between them.”

Five Star’s popularity had eroded sharply in recent years as it struggled to evolve from a protest movement into a ruling party. Polls show he is now favored by less than 15% of the electorate – down from nearly 33% in 2018 – and has lost control of many key city governments in local elections.

But Alessandro Marrone, director of the defense program at the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs, said the war in Ukraine had strained a movement filled with activists influenced by the pacifist and anti-American tradition of the country. Italy.

“Five Star has become increasingly mainstream over the past four years, with a more Europeanist and pro-Atlantic stance, but a component remains skeptical about it,” he said.

Five Star isn’t the only populist group in Draghi’s coalition feeling the heat. Matteo Salvini’s right-wing League – which had official ties to the United Russia Party allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin – is also struggling, with recent polls showing it is favored by less than 15% of voters, compared to 30% two years ago.

The setbacks of Five Star and the League benefit Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, which is rooted in post-fascist politics and is the only party in parliament not to have joined Draghi’s coalition. His polls have gone from single digits two years ago to more than 22% today.

While Salvini is widely expected to contest next year’s elections under an alliance with Meloni’s party, Five Star’s future direction is unclear.

“Five Star is breaking down,” Albertazzi said. “They don’t know where they are going, they don’t know who they want to be. The electorate can see it – and little by little they are disappearing.