The Five Star Movement’s former leader Luigi Di Maio: “A party that lacks a clear direction”

Originally published by the LSE’s European Politics and Policy:

On Wednesday, Luigi Di Maio resigned as leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S).

Why, in contrast to other populist parties, has M5S appears to have imploded while in office?

The Five Star Movement has been characterized as a “valence populist party“. That label has been applied because, M5S is not a “left” or “right” populist party. Instead, it is among those who predominantly, if not exclusively, compete by focusing on non-positional issues such as the fight against corruption, increased transparency, democratic reform, and moral integrity. These parties may adopt specific positions (for example, M5S’s advocacy of a basic income), but their primary and prevailing competitive emphasis is placed on their competence and performance on “valence issues”, achieving goals that are widely shared by voters.

From 2017: Could the Five Star Movement be Italy’s Next Government?

The policy stances of valence populists are informed by an unadulterated conception of populism in which other ideological elements play a marginal or secondary role. Policies are flexible, free-floating, and often inconsistent. While valence populist parties are common in Eastern Europe — an example is ANO 2011 in the Czech Republic — M5S is the only contemporary case of this populist variety in the West.

The M5S originally emerged and remained until 2018 as an anti-system party that rejected cooperation with the other factions in the system. Five Star presented itself as a separate pole in opposition to both the center-right and center-left, declaring that it would only work with other parties on a strict issue-by-issue (and law-by-law) basis. The M5S rejected their legitimacy in the strongest terms, so fully-fledged cooperation was out of the question.

However, anti-system parties often eventually integrate into the system which they previously opposed. This is especially true for populist parties as the “new normal” in European party systems and governments. The integration and legitimation of populist parties can be a long or short process, according to the various incentives of the political system and electoral results, and it is usually accompanied by a series of programmatic and organizational reforms.

The zenith of the integration of populist parties is their entry into national office. In many cases, populist parties are able to survive this, and even to gain votes in subsequent elections. After a first disastrous experience in office (1994), Italy’s Lega benefited over time from a learning process. It now has a long record of government participation and dominates the Italian agenda. According to all polls, the party led by Matteo Salvini is by far the strongest in the country, with support estimated at 32%.

See also Matteo Salvini is Down But Not Out in Italy

The astonishing success of Salvini is the story, first of all, of a successful process of organization: the centralization of the party machine, a cohesive dominant coalition, the socialization of its activists and elites via value infusion, and the persistence of various structures and purposes of the “old” mass party. The Lega is then capable of acting as a strategic actor well beyond the short term, and converting sudden pressures or shocks — such as the Gregoretti trial over the alleged kidnapping of migrants — into competitive weapons by making them fit its narrative.

In contrast, the crisis that the M5S has experienced since 2018, culminating in Di Maio’s resignation, is the outcome of a failed process of integration by an anti-system party despite organizational reforms and programmatic adaptation before entering office. Although M5S has implemented a form of top-down management through a strictly centralized structure, internal conflict has been a constant: its dominant coalition lacks cohesion, and it lacks the instruments to ensure value infusion among elites and activists. Its public image remains that of a conflict-ridden party.

These problems are the consequence of a flawed organisational project, incapable of effectively absorbing internal conflict. They are also linked to the peculiar nature of the Five Star Movement’s ideological profile. Valence populist parties seek to transcend left and right, and the integration into the coalition game with other parties implies choosing between one of the two sides.

M5S first governed with the right-wing Lega, then with the center-left Democratic Party (PD). While the PD had long been the sworn enemy of Five Star, cooperation between the two parties was not necessarily doomed to failure. In many cases, parties can successfully cooperate after years of reciprocal hostility. However, in the case of M5S, it led to a fiasco.

The absence of mechanisms to absorb internal conflict made it impossible to explain effectively to voters the rationale, expectations, and benefits of M5S’s strategic repositioning. The party failed to articulate a coherent and consistent message, a failure compounded by its organisational chaos.

The nature of a valence populist party is linked to the idea of communicating competence and performance in achieving widely-shared political goals. Five Star did not fulfil this idea.

The outcome is what we see today: a party that lacks a clear direction, is plagued by internal conflict, and is suffering a string of electoral debacles. M5S is learning — or at least should be learning — that agency matters, and parties remain the masters of their own success or failure.