Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split
Italy's Foreign Affairs Minister, Luigi Di Maio, at the Italian Senate in Rome on June 21st 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.

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Italy’s newspapers warn of Russian ‘interference’ in election

Italy's main newspapers printed front-page warnings on Friday of alleged Russian interference in the upcoming election, after Russia's former president urged Europeans to "punish" their governments.

Italy's newspapers warn of Russian 'interference' in election

Leading newspapers Repubblica and Il Messaggero published front pages warning of Russian “interference” on Friday, while the Corriere della Sera said Russia was “agitating” political waters ahead of the vote.

The headlines came after former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday called for European voters to be “not only outraged at the actions of their governments… but to hold them to account and punish them for their obvious stupidity”.

READ ALSO: Italy’s Salvini questioned over Russia ties ahead of election campaign

“Act, European neighbours! Don’t remain silent! Demand accountability!” he said on Telegram.

The government of outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, providing Kyiv with military and humanitarian support.

But that support could shift with the likely victory of a right-wing alliance in general elections on September 25th.

Two of the three major parties in the right-wing coalition set to take power are known for their staunch support of Russia.

While Giorgia Meloni has said her frontrunning Brothers of Italy party stands with Ukraine, Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia have long nurtured ties with Russia and its President Vladimir Putin.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio accused Salvini and other leaders of failing to condemn what he said was clear Russian interference.

READ ALSO: Why does Italy have so many political parties?

Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni (L) is tipped to become Italy’s next prime minister as part of a strong coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italy and Matteo Salvini’s League. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

The head of Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party (PD), Enrico Letta, said Moscow was attempting to “change Italian foreign policy, which since the beginning has been very clearly on the side of the European Union and NATO”.

Letta also called for Salvini’s League to break off a cooperation pact it signed with Putin’s United Russia party in 2017.

Salvini, who has long admired Putin, even wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Russian leader’s face, defended himself on Friday, saying he had “not been to Russia for years”.

“Russia does not have the slightest influence on the Italian elections,” he told journalists in Milan.

READ ALSO: Berlusconi’s bad break-up with Putin reveals strained Italy-Russia ties

Medvedev, who was Putin’s stand-in president between 2008 and 2012, is now deputy head of the Security Council, but is widely believed to have little influence on Russian politics.

Allegations of meddling by Moscow in Italy are not new.

In July, Russia rejected previous accusations of election interference in Italy’s election campaign, which Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said were nothing more than a “myth”.