By Angelo Amante and Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) – Members of Italy’s anti-establishment 5-Star Movement on Thursday rejected a call from party chief Luigi Di Maio to pull out of upcoming regional elections, in a surprise move that underlines Di Maio’s difficulties as leader.
5-Star has lost a stream of local elections and slumped in opinion polls since it stormed to power at parliamentary elections in March last year when it won 33% of the vote, doubling its nearest rival.
Di Maio has announced a major party overhaul and he suggested the upcoming votes in northern Emilia Romagna and southern Calabria would take up too much of its energies at a time when it needs to take stock.
However, in an online vote on the party’s internet platform, 27,273 5-Star members voted 71% to 29% against the proposal to take a “pause from elections until March”, taking in the ballots in the two regions on Jan 26.
5-Star has held scores of online votes on policy decisions, in line with its ethos of direct democracy, and only once before had the result gone against the wishes of its leadership.
“Our members have given us a clear and very strong mandate: we have to take part in the regional elections with all our efforts. And that is what we will do,” Di Maio said.
The 33-year old party leader, who is Italy’s foreign minister, is having growing problems controlling his movement, which is internally divided and demoralised by its dwindling support. Recent polls put it on around 17%.
Di Maio said 5-Star will run on its own in both elections.
In Emilia Romagna, the largest and most important region, Stefano Bonaccini, the centre-left governor running for re-election, had hoped for 5-Star’s support to ward off a strong challenge from Matteo Salvini’s right-wing League.
Emilia Romagna is a traditionally leftist region and defeat there to the League could undermine the national government, made up of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and 5-Star.
Opinion polls suggest the PD’s Bonaccini would have got a boost from 5-Star’s support, and would have remained favourite for victory if it had pulled out altogether. Its decision to run alone looks set to help the League and leaves the race wide open.
With 5-Star fielding its own candidate Bonaccini is set to get 45%, his League rival is seen on 44% and 5-Star on 8%, according to a poll this week by the Noto agency.
5-Star is much stronger in Calabria, as in many poor southern regions. It scored 43% there in the 2018 national election, but the party traditionally fares much worse in local ballots and has never won control of any of Italy’s 20 regions.
Last month 5-Star broke its traditional policy of always running at elections alone, when it backed a joint candidate with the PD in the small central region of Umbria. The result was a crushing defeat at the hands of the League.
Under 5-Star’s overhaul, the party will set up 12 new policy departments and six national co-ordinators who will share power with Di Maio, who is under internal fire for deciding policy with a small, centralised group of advisers.
(This story refiles to fix typo in “members” in first sentence)
(Reporting by Angelo Amante and Gavin Jones; Editing by Daniel Wallis)