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The Five Star Movement, from "anti-politics" party to "spectacle" party

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In recent weeks we have been witnessing an embarrassing spectacle involving the party that still has the largest number of parliamentarians in Italian politics, the so-called Five Star Movement. This spectacle consists of a classic power struggle between the party's founders (because Casaleggio junior has been taking over his father's role for years since his father's death), on the one hand, and the party's brand new leader, none other than former Prime Minister Conte, on the other. The conflict is clear: while the founders want to continue to rule over the official leader of the party (as they did with Luigi di Maio between October 2017 and January 2019, when he resigned), Conte does not accept any kind of control over his work and wants complete freedom to shape a party that would essentially be re-founded and transformed into a centre-left party, a defender of environmental policies and in favour of greater equity between the richer regions (the northern ones) and the poorer ones (the southern ones).

The founders of the party, who had pinned all their hopes on Conte being able to lift a party that for years has been at less than half of the vote intention achieved in the last general elections (March 2018), have found that the Pugliese politician and jurist does not intend to follow anyone's orders, and has publicly stated this. The reaction of the founders has been one of uncontainable anger, with harsh disqualifications towards Conte, who has not been the least bit perturbed. A man who came to high politics just over three years ago, he knows that he has the "upper hand". We will explain why.

Let us begin by pointing out that Conte, born in a small town (Volturara Apulia) in southern Italy in August 1964, has gradually built up a career that deserves at least to be taken into account. He did not study law in Lecce, where the main university of his home region (Puglia) is located, but in Rome, which almost four decades ago marked an important leap in his life: he went from one of the poorest and most underdeveloped areas of the country to none other than the capital of what is now the third largest country in the European Union.

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REUTERS/Remo Casilli - Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini at a press conference in Rome

Although very little is known about his personal biography, Conte must have been a very good student and this gave him the possibility to do his doctoral thesis in private law and, subsequently, to get a place at the University of Florence, which is not one of the first in the country but which enjoys a good reputation. It was there that he met a young Alfonso Bonafede (also, incidentally, with Matteo Renzi), who would join the Five Star Movement from its foundation back in 2009 and who would introduce Conte's name in the circles of a formation that was going from strength to strength: If in the 2013 elections it was the third most voted party after the PD and Forza Italia, in 2018 it would sweep all its rivals, garnering 32.6% of the vote, fourteen points above the second most voted (the Democratic Party now headed by the aforementioned Renzi).

By that time Conte's name was public and notorious, since Five Star did something never seen before in politics: on Friday 1 March, two days before Italians went to vote, they released the list of ministers who would be part of the government in case this "anti-traditional politics" party won the "maggioranza". Conte appeared on the list as the future Minister of Public Administration. However, Five Star, by not running in coalition with anyone, fell almost eight points short of this "maggioranza", which would force it, after arduous negotiations, to sign a legislative pact (the pompous "government contract") with the Lega of the ultra-nationalist Matteo Salvini, who had been the third most voted candidate after Di Maio and Renzi.

In principle, Di Maio, as head of the list, should have been given the "incarico" of forming the government by the one who had to do it (Sergio Mattarella, President of the Republic), but the veteran Sicilian politician, who knows the Italian political tradition, refused to do so: he could not grant such an honour to a person without a university degree, nor to Salvini, who in 1993 had decided to leave his "laurea" in History from the State University of Milan to enter politics as a councillor in the City Council of the Lombard capital. In connection with this, Mattarella let Di Maio know that he had to give him the name of someone with a university degree, and in the end the chosen one (because among the ministers there were a few, in fact most of them, with a university degree) was precisely Conte. Finally, and after months of negotiations, in the first week of June 2018 the first government of the 18th Legislature was presented, with Conte as prime minister, and Di Maio and Salvini as deputy prime ministers (Di Maio would add to this post that of Labour and Economic Development, while Salvini would remain in charge of the Interior).

During his first year as premier, Conte went completely unnoticed. He was, or at least seemed to be, a mere toy in the hands of Di Maio and Salvini, who were really in charge. But, in reality, as would later become clear, what he was doing was learning the workings of transalpine high politics, something that would be of inestimable help to him from Mattarella, who deep down felt somewhat identified with Conte: although 23 years older than Conte, both were jurists, both came from southern Italy (Mattarella, Sicilian; Conte, Pugliese), and both were openly in favour of a conciliatory position with the EU authorities, while Di Maio and Salvini went from conflict to conflict with the President of the European Commission (at that time the Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker) over the General State Budget (PGE).

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PHOTO - Matteo Renzi

As is well known, Salvini, after crushing Di Maio in the various regional government elections that were being held (Abruzzo, Basilicata, Sardinia, Umbria, Calabria, etc.), and after doubling him in direct votes in the European elections of 26 May 2019 (34% for the Lega to 17% for Five Star), decided to bring down the government on 7 August, even though there were still almost four years of legislature ahead of him. Salvini was convinced of two things: first, that this "premier" (Conte), who was only there to appear, would easily collapse and, after resigning, would leave politics; And that the PD, which was the only alternative to the Lega to sustain a joint government with the Five Star Movement, would flatly refuse to make a pact with a party that had systematically abused and insulted it during the previous legislature (the 17th, in which the PD had governed, consecutively, through the "premiers" Letta, Renzi and Gentiloni).

But time quickly proved him wrong. Salvini first found that Conte had, at least for the time being, no intention of resigning or leaving politics; and, even more surprisingly, that Matteo Renzi would be able to ally himself with a Five Star that had been particularly vicious towards him, going so far as to make harsh accusations against the young Tuscan politician's family.

What Salvini did not really know was that Conte was not only a much tougher nut to crack than he thought, but that he would also have the unwavering support of a Mattarella who did not want to go down in the history of the Italian Republic as the first head of state who had to call early elections after only one year in office: until then, the shortest legislatures had lasted a minimum of two years, as had happened in 1992-94, 1994-96 and 2006-08. And, given the fact that the PD's "heavyweights" (such as Romano Prodi and Walter Veltroni) agreed for once with Renzi that it was advisable to form a government with the Cinque Stelle because, if not, Salvini would crush them in early elections (the centre-right was, at that time, ten points ahead of the centre-left), in the end the miracle was worked: The legislature would continue with a second government, now formed by a PD-Five Star coalition (to which the small left-wing LeU would be added). And who would be the new prime minister? Evidently, Conte, whom Salvini, by the way, has come to call the "lawyer of the strong powers" as opposed to his previous name (the "people's lawyer").

If in the 2018 negotiations Five Star had already shown very little negotiating skill and had given Salvini the most important portfolio (Interior) while giving the possibility that his "right-hand man" (the Lombard Giorgetti, known as the "Letta padano"), in his capacity as undersecretary of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, could have control over Conte at all times, As Undersecretary of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, he could keep Conte under control at all times, since this Undersecretary is the post through which all the matters to be dealt with by the Prime Minister pass, and in the negotiations with the Five Star PD he showed that he had learned nothing from previous mistakes: It kept Conte as prime minister and ensured that no one from the PD would take over the vice-presidency of the government, but in exchange it ceded the two most important portfolios (Economy and Finance to Roberto Gualteri, and Infrastructure and Transport to Paola de Micheli) to them. The PD had half as many MPs as Five Star, but in the government they were almost on a parity (eleven Cinque Stelle ministers to nine PD ministers). A new demonstration of the extraordinary degree of ineptitude of Di Maio (now the new foreign affairs minister) and his ilk.

But the worst was yet to come, and that was to have someone as skilful as Matteo Renzi in the coalition government: moreover, with the necessary senators (once he had split off to create a formation called Italia Viva) to keep the new government on its feet. Despite this, this second government functioned reasonably well for more than a year, and all this with a coronavirus in its midst. It was here that the figure of Conte emerged strongly: the so-called "health emergency", which began at the end of February 2020 and forced a very harsh confinement, showed that Conte had enough guts to exercise political leadership.

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AFP/ANDREAS SOLARO - Matteo Salvini, Giuseppe Conte and Luigi di Maio

But Conte also made his personal mistake, although the PD leadership, which had been at loggerheads with Renzi for years, was probably behind it: after getting the European Union to grant Italy 209 billion in the so-called "European Reconstruction Fund" (July 2020), when the time came to create the structure that was to administer these funds, they had no better idea than to try to marginalise Renzi's party. Renzi, neither short nor lazy, agreed to go to war against Conte and managed, in two months (the time between the beginning of December 2020 and the end of January 2021), to end the Pugliese jurist's time as president of the Council of Ministers. We already know how it all ended: Mattarella called in Mario Draghi, former president of the European Central Bank (ECB) and commissioned him to form a government, an executive that would be presented in mid-February and which has been governing the country since then, supported by a very broad coalition government (a coalition which, incidentally, includes both Italia Viva, the PD and the majority of Five Stars, as well as other parties).

Zingaretti, leader of the PD since March 2019, and after having made a major fool of himself and his "right-hand man" (Goffredo Bettini), had no choice but to resign, leaving the party in the hands of former prime minister Letta, who was called in to act as interim secretary general (there they call him "regent"). Meanwhile, Conte was crowned as the new leader of the centre-left, and PD, Cinque Stelle and LeU agreed to forge a centre-left coalition whose first objective was to be the administrative elections in October this year (the mayoralties of such important cities as Milan, Rome and Naples are at stake).

And so it came to the present moment. Conte was already shaping his new party, until the founders tried to bring him into line and control him. Conte's response was more than immediate: either I lead the party, or I leave and found my own party or even quit politics. And the founders, perplexed by what was happening, without any replacement for Conte: do we put in a Di Maio who has shown that he has not the slightest qualification to lead such an important party? Do we pull in a Bonafede who a year ago released almost four hundred mafia "capos" from prison for "humanitarian reasons" in relation to possible coronavirus infections? Shall we ask a Tonninelli who made a "mess" of the "Morandi Bridge" affair and who was eventually removed by Conte as head of Infrastructure and Transport? Shall we talk to a Di Battista whom we have systematically marginalised? Or, better still, shall we try a Virginia Raggi whose management in Rome is proving to be a thorny path? That is the stark reality for the owners of the party: that there is no alternative to Conte. And even more so knowing that around 210 of their remaining MPs would mostly go with him.

And all this remembering that the current 75 Cinque Stelle senators are very important for the Draghi government to be able to continue acting with the strength and decisiveness with which they are doing it. We do not know how all this will turn out, but one thing is clear: Five Star has gone from being an "anti-politics" party to a "show" party. Who would have thought it in a "movement" that for years presented itself as the model to follow.

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is a professor at the Centro Universitario ESERP and author of the book 'Historia de la Italia republicana' (1946-2021) (Sílex Ediciones, 2021).