ROME – The head of Italy's ruling 5-Star Movement stepped down as party leader Wednesday, following a string of parliamentary defections, falling poll numbers and questions about the movement's future.
Luigi Di Maio insisted that the government coalition would go forward, and that he would continue to work within the 5-Star movement ahead of a party congress in the spring.
“For me, and for you, a new season will start," he told a gathering of party faithful in Rome, ending days of speculation that he would step down as party leader while remaining Italy's foreign minister. “I'm not giving up. As far as I'm concerned, it's only the end of a phase.”
He said he had full trust in his successor, Vito Crimi, a senior party member, but questions immediately arose about the implications of his departure on the 5-Star-led governing coalition.
The 5-Stars have been in crisis for months, most acutely since the movement flipped coalition partners in September. But even earlier, it was beset by infighting and has seen the defections or expulsions of 31 lawmakers since the party won 33% of the vote in the 2018 election.
It was the 5-Stars' biggest victory nationally since its birth as a grassroots, anti-establishment protest movement led by comic Beppe Grillo.
Analysts have long said the party has struggled to pivot into an effective governing force, hobbled by its uneasy governing alliances first with the right-wing League party and, since September, with the center-left Democratic Party. In the process, it alienated voters by defying some of its core values.
Emiliana De Blasio, a communications sociologist at Rome's Luiss University, said Di Maio's downfall is linked to the fact that he rose in party ranks representing the movement's right-wing, and as such could work with Salvinit.
“The rapid fall is probably best represented by the fact that the government in this moment is made up of an alliance with the Democratic Party, so the whole 5-Star Movement seems to have moved towards the center-left," she said.
The conflict came to a head a few days before a regional election this weekend that is likely to see Matteo Salvini’s League party score well in the traditional leftist stronghold of Emilia Romagna.
Latest polls showed the League and the Democratic candidate running close.
Salvini cheered Di Maio's downfall, saying: “Di Maio abandons the leadership of the 5 Stars to collapse." Given the additional infighting within the Democrats, “the government is finished," he tweeted.
Analyst Massimiliano Panarari, writing Wednesday in the La Stampa newspaper, said a decision by Di Maio to step aside now as party leader would spare him blame should the candidate closest to the ruling coalition, Democrat Stefano Bonaccini, lose.
The 5-Stars' support has now shrunk to polling nationally only around 15-16%.
Premier Giuseppe Conte said he respected Di Maio's decision, while dismissing suggestions that his resignation as party leader could destabilize the government.
“Certainly, I would be sorry on a personal level," he told RTL102 radio.
De Blasio, the Luiss sociologist, noted that Di Maio never finished university and had no relevant work experience before being selected to head the party, a prime example of the fluid, non-traditional leadership ethos that guides the 5-Stars.
While he is capable and clever, “the 5-Star Movement is made up of many personalities, and Di Maio is only one of the personalities," she said.
AP producer Trisha Thomas contributed.