Leader of Italy's far-right League party, Matteo Salvini may prove to be the biggest winner from the lockdown
Leader of Italy's far-right League party, Matteo Salvini may prove to be the biggest winner from the lockdown AFP / Andreas SOLARO

Italy's government hangs in the balance, yet again. Despite war and economic turmoil destabilising the world, the culprit here is one this country has seen many times before: a political party struggling for its survival.

Since winning 33% of the vote at the last national election in 2018, the 5-Star Movement has been in three governments but haemorrhaged half of its lawmakers to rival groups and seen its popular support fall by around two thirds.

Late on Wednesday its leader Giuseppe Conte announced the party would not participate in a Senate confidence vote in Mario Draghi's government, shattering the fragile unity of the broad coalition and throwing the government's future into doubt.

Draghi easily won the confidence vote even without 5-Star, but the premier had upped the stakes by saying he would not govern without its support, and headed off for consultation with the head of state over whether to proceed in office.

Relations between former Prime Minister Conte and his successor have been deteriorating for months but behind the move was a mixture of policy grievances, political calculation and probably a hint of desperation, politicians and analysts said.

"We should look at Conte's motivations from two points of view: politics and policy," said Eugenio Pizzimenti, politics professor at Pisa University.

In terms of politics, Conte had decided a "rupture" was needed in order for 5-Star to carve out a clear left-wing identity, abandoning its origins as a post-ideological protest movement that rejected the labels of left and right.

In terms of policy, the party felt isolated as Draghi and its coalition partners largely ignored its positions on economic and foreign policy and dismantled, watered down or publicly criticised many of its flagship policies.

These included subsidies on energy-saving home improvements, a scheme to discourage the use of cash, its "citizens' wage" poverty relief scheme and, in foreign policy, arms shipments to Ukraine which 5-Star opposes.

Conte made reference to some of these issues in his speech to 5-Star lawmakers on Wednesday, and the sense of grievance was clear among several of its politicians in parliament the following day.

"For some ruling parties, the only aim in these 18 months has been to dismantle all our measures," said Maria Castellone, 5-Star's Senate leader.


For 5-Star the final straw was the government's decision to include among the measures in Thursday's confidence motion the construction of a huge garbage incinerator in Rome. 5-Star has a strong ecological bent and has always opposed incinerators in favour of recycling.

"In the case of the incinerator, we offered a compromise but they never even discussed it with us," said 5-Star lower house deputy Luca Carabetta.

However, many commentators say these policy issues were mere pretexts, or at least secondary to Conte's belief that offloading governing responsibility and going into opposition was only way to revive 5-Star's electoral fortunes.

"5-Star's leaders have been planning this for months to put an end to the Draghi government," said Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, a former 5-Star leader who quit the party last month, taking around 60 of its lawmakers with him.

"They are hoping to launch a 9-month election campaign to improve their poll standings."

Rightist leader Giorgia Meloni has shown the benefits of being in opposition during hard economic times. Support for her Brothers of Italy party has surged since she refused to take part in Draghi's "national unity" government 17 months ago, and it now tops opinion polls.

Pisa University professor Pizzimenti said such has been 5-Star's decline since its anti-establishment heyday that it "doesn't really exist anymore" and had instead become the personal instrument of Conte, who retains high approval ratings.

"5-Star has been paralysed in the Draghi government and now it has to give itself a new identity," he said.

(Writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Alison Williams)