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Italy's anti-establishment M5S could be headed for 'political disaster' as support collapses

Key Points
  • The Five Star Movement (M5S), one half of a coalition government in Italy, continues to fare badly in regional elections in the country.
  • An expert said the decline results could spell "political disaster" for the party's leadership and coalition government.
  • The movement is not expected to perform well in EU Parliament elections in May.
The Vice Premiers Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini with the Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte participate in the Celebration of the Day of Remembrance at the Quirinale, on January 24, 2019 in Rome, Italy.
Simona Granati - Corbis | Corbis News | Getty Images

Regional election results for the Five Star Movement (M5S) have cast a shadow over the party and the wider coalition government in charge of Italy.

A regional election on Sunday in Sardinia — a former M5S stronghold — showed that support for the party continues to fall dramatically since the general election in March 2018.

Then, the grassroots anti-establishment movement confounded the establishment by gaining 32.6 percent of the national vote, the largest amount for a single party in Italy and above that of its coalition partner Lega (with 17.3 percent) which was then part of a right-wing coalition.

The party and its leader Luigi Di Maio have failed to make their mark in government over the last year, when compared with the populist Lega party and its vociferous leader Matteo Salvini.

In Sardinia last weekend, a coalition of center-right parties led by Christian Solinas, a member of the Lega, received 47 percent of the votes (although counting continues) and a center-left coalition received 33 percent. M5S fared badly and received just 9 percent of the vote, regional statistics showed Tuesday. To put the poor result into context, in the March 2018 election, M5S had received 42.5 percent of the vote in Sardinia.

Brave faces

Di Maio and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who was appointed to the post by Di Maio and Salvini, said the national government would not be affected by the result.

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"We must not over-emphasize a regional election," Conte told reporters on the sidelines of the EU-Arab League summit in Egypt Monday, Reuters reported.

"I don't believe the results could have any consequences for the national government."

Meanwhile, Di Maio said: "Nothing changes for the government."

Experts suggest M5S will continue to see their support base decline, however.

"The dismal M5S performance defeated even the lowest expectations, and it strongly suggests that the national polls — which now have fallen below 23 percent — may be upward biased, even when accounting for the traditional underperformance of M5S at local elections," J.P. Morgan economist Marco Protopapa said in a note Monday.

He said that M5S' surprise success at the general election in 2018 was largely due to over-performance in the south and the center. A similarly disappointing result in the region of Abruzzo earlier in the month (in which Lega gained 27.5 percent of the vote to 19.7 percent for M5S) also shows that the movement's declining support could be a trend seen in other regions.

Bad to worse?

The movement's latest performance doesn't bode well for forthcoming European Parliament elections in May.

"Together with a proven inability to conquer the northern regions' electorate, the Abruzzo (center) and Sardinia (south) bellwethers indicate that the EU election on 26 May can prove a political disaster for the current M5S leadership," Protopapa said.

As a result, J.P. Morgan believes that M5S lawmakers will likely challenge the current leadership, with a possible move toward those who are critical of Lega.

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"We expect that this sharp downtrend will deliver ripple effects on national politics over the next months. It is obvious that M5S needs to develop a strategy to avoid a dramatic defeat at the EU elections. The M5S leader Di Maio — a staunch supporter of the government experience next to Lega — has already announced an internal reorganization of the party, but that looks to us only an attempt to avoid a broader questioning of its leadership," Protopapa said.

Government collapse?

A coalition government of the right-wing Lega and the anti-establishment, left-leaning M5S was always expected to be awkward. The only obvious similarity being a euroskeptic stance that both parties appear to share, especially in recent months with their clash with the EU over Italy's budget.

Lega has been gaining in opinion polls while M5S has been declining. This has prompted experts to ask whether the partnership can withstand the parties' changing fortunes and their ambitions to govern alone — and whether a coalition collapse could come.

Jack Allen, a senior Europe economist at Capital Economics, noted Monday that with the parties "deep ideological differences … it would not be surprising to see them split."

He said there was a good chance of this happening after the European elections, where opinion polls suggest that Lega will become the biggest Italian party in the European Parliament.

Allen did not believe this would necessarily lead to early elections in Italy, however.

"It is far from certain that the government will collapse. Some thought that Lega will try to keep the coalition together, given that it is not being blamed for the weakness of the economy and is instead gaining significant support, particularly because of its anti-immigration stance," Allen said in a research note.

Lega's anti-immigration stance has grated with M5S' left-wing, however, and J.P. Morgan's Protopapa said that if this faction within the movement starts to oppose what they see as acquiescence towards Lega, this could lead directly to either an outright split in the party, or, more likely, "to the creation of a group of dissenters which may revoke its support to the government on key parliamentary decisions."

"Such an approach would lead to a break-up of the current government," he noted.