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POLITICS

Luigi Di Maio: From political upstart to Italy’s foreign minister

Italy's new foreign minister, Five Star Movement chief Luigi Di Maio, is a telegenic young gun who has turned his anti-establishment party into a mainstream political force capable of allying with right and left.

Luigi Di Maio: From political upstart to Italy's foreign minister
Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement and new Foreign Minister. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

His boyish, clean-cut looks hide a stubborn streak: the 33-year old was deputy prime minister in the outgoing government and had been threatening to torpedo the new tie-up with Italy's centre-left Democratic Party (PD) if he was demoted.

Derided by critics as a self-centred robot, he was persuaded to accept the trophy role of foreign minister instead. After the cabinet was officially sworn in on Thursday morning, he is the youngest foreign minister in Italy's postwar history.

READ ALSO: Here is Italy's new cabinet in full

Di Maio led his party to astonishing electoral success last year, propelling the grass-roots mavericks to the forefront of Italy's political scene for the very first time as it signed a contract to govern with the nationalist League.

The young Neapolitan's willingness to jump into bed with both the League and the PD — who Five Star has spent years ferociously criticizing — has caused critics to accuse him of putting power before policies. 


Luigi Di Maio (L) shakes hands with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as he is sworn in as foreign minister. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

'Courageous and ambitious'

The country's fresh start with a left-leaning, pro-European coalition was undermined somewhat by Di Maio's insistence that he did not regret anything done during the 14 months of coalition with the far-right.

On Wednesday he said the new government would be “courageous and ambitious” and “pick up where we left off”. He said he would focus particularly on Africa, the hot-button issue of migration, and Italy's rapport with emerging economies.

His appointment was met with a mixed reaction in Italy, with some Twitter users saying Di Maio did not speak a word of English. And he will have to pull out all the charm stops with neighbouring France, after ruffling feathers in Paris in February by travelling to meet “yellow vest” anti-government protesters.

Di Maio's election as party leader in 2017 represented an important shift for Five Star — from the frantic conspiratorial ranting of iconoclast co-founder and stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo to a new measured, reassuring style. The southern upstart began life as a Grillo disciple, but became increasingly irritated by the loud-mouthed comic's attempts to direct the Movement from behind the scenes during the political crisis.

Di Maio has been involved with the M5S since its creation in 2009, campaigning against corruption and the European Union while promoting political transparency and direct democracy.

Following the February 2013 election, Five Star won a spectacular quarter of the vote and Di Maio, then aged just 26, was among 108 M5S candidates elected to the Chamber of Deputies — the lower house of the Italian parliament. A month later, he became the chamber's youngest ever deputy speaker.

'Reassuring to mums'

His elevation to party leader via an online vote, in which Di Maio's competitors were relative unknowns, prompted many commentators to brand his election as a coronation organized by “puppet-master” Grillo.

Others questioned his political authenticity, accusing him of being a hybrid creation of Grillo and consultants. “Di Maio was created to be moderate, reassuring to mums,” said Italian political journalist Jacopo Iacoboni.

The mums, however, were more drawn to ranting strongman Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant League, who quickly outstripped Di Maio in popularity thanks to his “Italians first” message and relentless social media skills. Di Maio's party also slumped in the polls and its deal with the PD was seen as a bid to avoid a potentially disastrous election.

ANALYSIS: How Matteo Salvini lost his gamble to become Italy's PM – for now

The new foreign minister was born on July 6th 1986 into a well-to-do family in Avellino near Naples. His father Antonio had a small construction business and was an activist for the now-defunct neo-fascist party Italian Social Movement, while his mother Paola was a Latin teacher.

The eldest of three children, Di Maio studied computer engineering at Naples University, later switched to law and never completed a degree. According to a CV posted on M5S's website, he founded his own web and social media marketing business while studying, as well as working on video projects.

A focus on marketing and presentation helped the M5S shift its tone on key issues with Di Maio at the helm. The M5S had consistently called for Italy to leave the single currency eurozone, but Di Maio has moderated their stance, making conciliatory overtures to the bloc which are set to continue under the tie-up with pro-Europe PD.

By AFP's Ella Ide

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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

EXPLAINED: Why does Italy have so many political parties?

As more than a hundred political parties register ahead of Italy's upcoming election, here's why and a look at the ones you need to know about.

EXPLAINED: Why does Italy have so many political parties?

Italy is gearing up for an early general election on September 25th, and so far the number of different parties and alliances in the running can seem overwhelming.

While they won’t all be approved, a total of 101 political parties and movements submitted their symbols and leaders’ names to the Italian interior ministry on Sunday.

READ ALSO: Why has Italy’s government collapsed in the middle of summer?

Meanwhile, parties are busy forging electoral alliances that include up to eight or nine members.

It may look chaotic, but a large number of small parties and numerous complex alliances is standard in Italy’s electoral system.

Here’s a look at why, how it all works, and which of the parties to watch. And we’ll try to keep it brief.

How many political parties are there exactly?

It’s not yet known for sure how many of the 101 political parties and movements which submitted their symbols and leaders’ names to the interior ministry on Sunday will be approved.

Those who go forward also need to collect the 36,750 signatures necessary for their candidates to stand for seats in the lower house of parliament, and a separate 19,500 to get onto the ballot for the Senate.

The parties now have until August 22nd to officially register their candidate lists, or liste elettorali.

These lists of prospective MPs are seen as vitally important, and as such are reported on in detail by Italian media: all of these names will feature on lists at polling stations, and voters have the option to name up to three individuals they want to support on the ballot.

Each list is headed by the party leader, who would then be that party’s choice for prime minister. But some – usually smaller – parties choose to link their lists together under one leader’s name.

Ok, so which of these parties do I need to know about?

At this stage, it’s safe to say quite a few of the 101 parties and movements mentioned earlier are not serious contenders.

The number of parties you’ll actually need to know about in order to follow the election race is much smaller (although it’s still more than the two or three some of us are used to following in our home countries).

You’ve probably heard of at least some of Italy’s biggest political parties: Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, or FdI); Partito Democratico (Democratic party, PD); Lega (the League); Forza Italia; Viva Italia; and Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement, or M5S).

READ ALSO: Who can vote in Italy’s elections?

As well as these, some small, lesser-lnown parties are also likely to be decisive in the outcome of the election, if not in the formation of the next government.

That includes groupings of several parties that have joined the large right- and left-wing alliances.

What are these alliances?

Electoral alliances between two, three or more parties are vital, because the way Italy’s political system works means it’s almost impossible for one single party to take enough of the vote to rule alone.

Italy essentially has a multi-party system – in contrast to the two-party system in countries like the US and UK – designed after the second world war (and Italy’s Fascist era) to prevent any one party from being in complete control.

So parties must team up and form these alliances with similar parties to fight elections. Then, they often have to join forces with yet more parties or alliances to form a government – often, these coalition partners are from a different part of the political spectrum.

Image: Demopolis

As a result, Italy has had a long series of fractious governments made up of numerous parties with vastly differing viewpoints (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, don’t tend to last very long).

Here’s a look at the three main electoral alliances in the running this time around, and the parties within them, as well as a few other contenders you may hear about in the news:

  • Centre-right

The so-called centre-right or ‘centrodestra’ alliance is led by the hard-right Brothers of Italy, the biggest party in Italy according to the latest opinion polls, along with the populist League, led by Matteo Salvini, and Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative Forza Italia

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

These three heavyweights, predicted to take around 45 percent of the vote between them, have now been joined by a grouping of smaller, more moderate parties – a coalition within a coalition, if you will – who are running under one list.

This list is named Noi Moderati (‘we moderates’), and is made up of the following small parties: UDC, Coraggio Italia, Noi con Italia and Italia nel centro. 

Altogether, the ‘centrodestra’ alliance is essentially the same one that came close to winning the last election in 2018.

  • Centre-left

On the other side of the ring sits Italy’s second-largest party: the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which is polling just behind FdI but hasn’t formed similar powerful alliances that would make it a credible challenge to a right-wing landslide.

The centre-left alliance, called the PD-IDP, is made up of four different lists, or groupings of similar small parties:

    • Democrats and Progressives (PD along with Article 1 and Socialists)
    • Più Europa (a grouping of small pro-European parties)
    • L’Alleanza Verdi e Sinistra (Greens and Italian Left, an alliance known as AVS)
    • Impegno Civico (IC leader Luigi Di Maio is heading a list including candidates from two other small parties: Centro Democratico and Psdi, the Italian Democratic Socialist Party.)

All these parties together are currently expected to take around 32-34 percent of the vote.

  • ‘Third pole’

After breaking an agreement to ally with PD, centrist party Azione formed a pact with Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva to create a third alliance, which they called “a third pole” and described as a “pragmatic alternative to the bi-populism of the right and left”.

The two are currently running together along with a smaller party, Lista Civica Nazionale.

The so-called A-IV alliance is currently polling at five percent.

  • Five Star Movement

Now led by former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, the populist Five Star Movement is the only major party running alone.

The party is significantly diminished since it shot to power on the protest vote in 2018. 

After several years of hemorrhaging support and recently splitting as former leader Di Maio left to form his own party, Impegno Civico (which is running as part of the centre-left coalition), M5S is expected to take around ten percent of the vote – sharply down from 32 percent in the 2018 elections.

Who else is out there?

There are currently dozens of new and unaffiliated parties out there, though very few are likely to reach the number of signatures needed to appear on the ballot.

Some of the more notable smaller parties and movements could take a small share of the vote each – though it’s unlikely to be enough for them to obtain representation in parliament.

The better-known of these parties include single-issue parties like Italexit (Eurosceptic), which is currently polling at three percent.

There’s also the Partito Gay (campaigning for LGBTQ rights) as well as anti-establishment groups such as the Movimento Gilet Arancioni (Orange Vests Movement), while many of Italy’s most prominent politicians, such as current health minister Roberto Speranza, also lead their own small parties.

Find all the latest news on Italy’s election race here.

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