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Luigi Di Maio quits as head of Italy’s Five Star Movement

The head of Italy's anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which co-governs the country, stepped down as party leader on Wednesday in a move likely to trigger political shockwaves.

Luigi Di Maio quits as head of Italy's Five Star Movement
Luigi Di Maio currently serves as Italy's foreign minister as well as the head of the M5S. Photo: John Thys/AFP

M5S is the largest party in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's coalition government, and Luigi Di Maio's exit could further weaken an already fragile alliance with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

Di Maio, 33, announced his resignation at a party meeting in the afternoon, Italian newspapers said.

READ ALSO: Luigi Di Maio: From political upstart to Italy's foreign minister


Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement and Foreign Minister. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

It comes days ahead of a key regional poll pitting the M5S and PD against Matteo Salvini's rightwing populist opposition party, the League.

The League, which enjoys a significant lead in national polls, hopes that defeating the M5S and PD on Sunday in Emilia Romagna — a historic heartland of the left — will spark a crisis and bring down the government.

READ ALSO: 'Enough hate': Who are the protesting 'Sardines' packing into Italian squares?

A League victory would increase tensions considerably, with the PD likely to blame the M5S for refusing to join forces behind a single candidate — thus splitting the anti-Salvini vote. The governing coalition's main stabilising factor is a joint fear of snap elections which could hand power to Salvini.

The M5S was likely to perform particularly badly, according to the last polls ahead of the ballot.

Di Maio was expected to remain foreign minister, but reportedly told relatives “this is the time to take a step back, I am exhausted,” online Italian newspaper TIP said.

He has been head of the M5S since September 2017, but has faced mounting internal dissent as the movement loses popularity and lawmakers abandon it. Two more lawmakers said Tuesday they were quitting the party, which has haemorrhaged over 15 members since forming the coalition with the PD in September.

Senator Vito Crimi was slated to temporarily take over as chief ahead of a party conference due in March.

“This is a delicate moment for the M5S. We have to go forwards united, because if we split we condemn ourselves to irrelevance,” M5S minister Vincenzo Spadafora told reporters on Wednesday.

Co-founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, the movement initially claimed to be neither right nor left wing but the only “honest” alternative to establishment parties.

It initially refused any alliances. But March 2018 elections saw it become the biggest party in Italian politics with 32 percent of the vote, and the M5S eventually formed a relatively short-lived coalition with Salvini's League, before that ended and it joined forces with the PD.

Telegenic Di Maio is credited by supporters with turning M5S into a mainstream political force capable of allying with right and left, but critics have long derided him as a self-centred robot.

The Movement's popularity plummeted during its time with the League, and has struggled to recover. Some within M5S have called for the party to be restructured, saying the leader currently has too much power.

Political experts say the apparent ease with which the M5S swapped a marriage of convenience with the League for one with the PD has inevitably lead to fierce internal bickering.

“The Five Stars do not know what they are,” commentator Claudio Tito wrote in the Repubblica daily on Tuesday. “They are jerked this way and that by a constant oscillation between sovereignty and welfarism, between populism and moralism, between a visionary idea of the future and attachment to their political thrones.”

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POLITICS

Italy’s government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

Italy's new government issued a decree on Thursday to continue sending weapons to Ukraine through 2023, continuing the previous administration's policy of support to Kyiv.

Italy's government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

The decree extends to December 31, 2023 an existing authorisation for “the transfer of military means, materials and equipment to the government authorities of Ukraine,” according to a government statement.

Since taking office in October, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has repeatedly voiced her support for Kyiv while underlying the importance of the Atlantic alliance.

In her first speech to parliament, the leader of the Brothers of Italy party pledged to “continue to be a reliable partner of NATO in supporting Ukraine.”

Her predecessor Mario Draghi was a staunch supporter of Kyiv, but the issue of sending arms to Ukraine split the biggest party in parliament during his coalition government, the Five Star Movement.

That friction led to the early elections that brought Meloni to power.

Parliament now has 60 days to vote the decree into law.

READ ALSO: Outcry in Italy after Berlusconi defends Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Despite Meloni’s efforts to reassure her Western allies of Italy’s support for the EU’s and NATO’s Ukraine strategy, including sanctions on Russia, the close ties to Russia of her two coalition partners have come under scrutiny.

Both Matteo Salvini of the League party and former premier Silvio Berlusconi, who leads Forza Italia, have long enjoyed warm relations with Russia.

In October, an audio tape of Berlusconi was leaked to the media in which the former premier described how he had received a birthday present of vodka from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the tape, he also expressed concerns about sending weapons and cash to Kyiv and appeared to blame the war on Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Berlusconi later issued a statement saying his personal position on Ukraine “does not deviate” from that of Italy and the EU.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Salvini, too, has come under fire for his relations with Moscow, including a report that he dined with Russia’s ambassador to Rome just days after that country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Salvini, who has criticised EU sanctions as ineffective, has long admired Putin, even wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Russian leader’s face.

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