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Italian populists approve new government

September 3, 2019

The Five Star Movement has let a small group of party members vote online whether they back a proposed coalition deal with the center-left Democratic Party. They agreed by an overwhelming margin to support the plan.

Five Star Movement supporters
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/M. Spatari

On Tuesday, Italians learned that they would indeed have a new government and no snap elections after members of the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) held online voting to determine whether supporters would back a coalition with their former foe the Democratic Party (PD).

According to the party, 79.3% of votes cast supported the deal with the PD.

If they had rejected the proposal, Italy could have headed for snap elections as soon as November.

M5S leader Luigi Di Maio said he believed that the government crisis was now over.

"I am very proud of today's vote and very proud of the government that is to come," he told a press conference.

 "We should be proud of this digital platform... because we offered a different method for creating a government," he said of the much-criticized decision to hold the vote online.

Online platform criticized

M5S espouses both left- and right-wing views, but mainly sees itself as anti-establishment, one of the reasons it has avoided working the PD in the past. The PD has criticized the decision to let party members vote online over the coalition agreement, but did not withdraw its support for the deal. Further criticism of the process have come from political analysts, who have cast doubt on the credibility of the online portal that was used to facilitate the vote.

Rousseau, as the platform is called, was created in 2016 and is managed by Davide Casaleggio, the son of M5S co-founder, Gianroberto Casaleggio. It only has 115,000 eligible voters registered, despite 10 million people casting a vote for M5S in the last national election.

Voting closed at 6 p.m. local time (1600 GMT/UTC), and M5S and Rousseau had promised results 10 minutes later. After over an hour went by with no update, Italians began venting their frustration on Twitter, chastising M5S for relying on Rousseau, and expressing anger that Italy's fate was being decided by so few people to begin with.

M5S commits to PD deal

The populists have been in power since entering into a coalition with the far-right League party in June 2018, with M5S leader Di Maio and League leader Matteo Salvini as co-deputies under Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, at the time a political novice who remains without formal party affiliation but is loyal to M5S.

A year of Salvini's would-be strongman tendencies led to an attempt to topple the government and trigger fresh elections in August. He tried to push for a no-confidence vote against Conte, effectively killing the M5S-League alliance.

Salvini's gambit backfired, however, when the PD and M5S signaled that they would be willing to put aside their differences and form a new government with Conte staying on as prime minister. Italy has had 65 governments since World War II, and both parties have said they wished to avoid more political chaos for Italians.

"We made commitments to the Italians ... and come what may we want to fulfill them," Di Maio said.

Salvini: 'We're in no hurry'

According to Di Maio, after Salvini's defeat, he had offered to let his former co-deputy have the prime minister's post if he returned to their coalition, but Di Maio refused.

Despite the setback, Salvini has refused to accept recent events as a failure. A poll by Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera still has the League as the most popular single party in Italy with 31.2% support, compared to M5S's 34.2% and PD's 24.2%.

Believing that the new government would be unlikely to last, Salvini said "So we have to wait six months or a year to win? We're in no hurry." 

Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.