Luigi Di Maio, vice-Prime Minister of Italy and leader of the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), just a few days ago, announced that his party will seek to form a new group in the European Parliament after the European elections of May 2019. It would be composed of those forces rejecting both the right and left of the political spectrum.

On October 9, Roberto Fico, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, denied the possibility of M5S’ participation in the far-right group that Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen envisage to create.

However, the European future of the movement is not a such a crucial matter since the movement faces serious internal problems. The most important of them being that the real chief in the coalition government is Matteo Salvini whose proposals the majority of the movement accepts silently.

According to the polls, this situation has been highly fruitful for the far-right League, but detrimental for Di Maio’s party.

Consequently, this has led to internal strife over the M5S’ leanings – while rejecting the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’, it enjoys three tendencies: a right, a centre and a left.

As regards the left tendency, expressed by Roberto Fico, this is on a collision course with Salvini’s party. Some deputies and senators are obstructing or openly criticising the draft laws tabled by the League.

This situation risks becoming dangerous for the cohesion of M5S since the experienced League’s politicians interfere with the internal conflict of the movement by attacking Fico (their press accuses him of being a traitor) and by defending Di Maio.

The question now is whether the integrity of the movement, which comedian Beppe Grillo founded in 2009, will be secured and a split avoided. Will the M5S keep its electoral power after the European elections or will it become a victim of the rising Italian far-right party?

Italy’s flirt with populism

Populism is not a new phenomenon in Italy. The main bases of the fascist movement’s rhetoric of 1919-20 were populist although enriched with advanced and progressive demands for the epoch. It emerged in the aftermath of World War I, the echo of the Russian Revolution, the economic crisis and the mass unemployment. As such, it can be explained as a consequence of a crisis period.

World War II, however, represents a particularly traumatic experience for Italians as a 20-year regime (the Fascist one) collapsed following a catastrophic participation in the war and the country’s occupation by foreign armies (the Allies and the Germans).

In those gloomy times, a mass populist movement emerged. It was the Common Man’s Front, which was formed around a successful newspaper and under the slogan “Abbasso tutti!” (“Down with everyone!”). The movement rejected professional politicians and ideologies although it did not hide its Anti-communism.

In fact, it celebrated success in the elections of 1946 (4.4% of the votes – more than 1m – and 30 deputies) causing damages to the right-wing political parties. But its popularity declined just as rapidly. This was another case of a crisis period phenomenon.

At the start of the 1990s, Italy found itself struggling in one of the worst crises in its history. The entire political establishment, based on a strong Christian Democracy and on an institutionalised opposition, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) on the left and the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) on the right, collapsed under the weight of heavy economic scandals.

It was time for Silvio Berlusconi to enter politics with a programme that had a strong scent of populism. Since then, he has managed to mesmerise a significant part of Italian voters for nearly two decades.

Even the League has a strong populist tradition, although the initial Lombard League was secessionist and the Northern League marked by acute racism.

The M5S emerged as a movement of young people deeply disenchanted by the politicians and the political parties. With no political experience, their men and women used a rhetoric based on simple sentimental and moral judgments by rejecting ideologies – ‘no right, no left’- and politicians.

The M5S was helped by the economic crisis that hit Italy at the end of the previous decade. In 2014, it scored big in the European elections with 21.6% of the vote, securing 17 seats in the European Parliament. In the general elections at home in March 2018, it emerged as the first party with 32.68% of the vote, securing 227 seats at the Chamber of Deputies and 112 Senators.

On June 1, M5S formed a coalition government together with the far-right League.

Five Stars European allies

The M5S is one of the two pillars of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group (EFDD) at the European Parliament. Of the EFDD’s 43 MEPs, 18 belong to the Eurosceptic UKIP and 17 to the Italian party.

But the rest of the actual or previous members of the Group question the M5S’s motives.

In fact, the far-right and xenophobic German AfD party, as well as the Sweden Democrats (now both members of the ECR Group) and the Patriots of the Florian Philippot (the former Vice President of Le Pen’s National Front), among others, were all partners with the M5S.

At the start of 2017, the leadership of the movement tried to leave EFDD to join ALDE, but this move was blocked by a M5S Congress.

Because of the above experiences, as well as the partnership with the far-right League in the Italian government, it will be difficult for Luigi Di Maio to find refuge in a European political family other than that of the far-right.

Perhaps this should not come as a surprise. After all, Di Maio’s father was a local councillor for the neo-fascist MSI. And Alessandro Battista, the leader of the right wing of the party has a similar family tradition.

The reality of the numbers

The M5S emerged as the real winner in the March 2018 elections in Italy. It was the only political party that faced the elections alone without being part of a coalition.

The movement won 32.68% of the vote, while Salvini’s League, which partnered with of a larger right-wing coalition, secured only 17.35% (125 deputies and 58 Senators) and the Democratic Party 18.76%.

Before the formation of the coalition government, several other options were examined. One was a coalition government between M5S and the Democratic Party, but this was not possible.

After the formation of the coalition government became clear, partly because of League’s experience in PR, that Salvini succeeded in bringing the entire government in line with his political agenda.

This had an immediate detrimental cost for Di Maio.

The League started to rise in popularity, according to the polls, and now is the strongest political force in the country with a 30% of preferences vote (against the 17.35% of the national elections) while M5S has around 29% (against the 32.68%).

A standoff could be imminent

The League’s proposal for the new ‘legitimate defence law’ which will practically authorise everyone to shoot anyone who enters uninvited his/her home or property or for causing ‘serious disturbance’ has provoked a deep division inside the M5S.

But that’s not all. The League’s proposals against migration and Salvini’s acts against the country’s Roma population, migrants and homeless has alarmed many. And the moderates have already started to question the ‘friendship’ with the far-right.

Inside the M5S, there are three tendencies. The centrist one, which centres around Luigi Di Maio and the right around Alessandro Battista. The two tendencies are in favour of the coalition with the League.

But Roberto Fico, the leader of the left tendency and President of the Chamber of Deputies, on the other side, is in a direct clash with Salvini’s proposals. Fico, among other things, is in favour of adoption rights for same-sex couples and jus soli, the right to award citizenship at birth. He also visited the refugees of Diciotti and condemned the racist decision in Lodi against migrant pupils.

The fact is that several senators and deputies of the M5S have started to react to their leadership choice. They do not want to sit with the far-right. They feel that the coalition government will be fruitful for Salvini but detrimental for their party.

Until now, their resistance has been discreet, but it is becoming more and more visible by the day.

Will this lead to a standoff?

In any case, Di Maio is currently in a very critical position. He sees that his partner has or seems to have the effective power in the coalition government. He certainly reads the polls. On the other hand, any internal clash that could provoke a split could prove catastrophic for the future of the movement.