Commentary. The Five Star Movement underperformed in the Abruzzi and Sardinian elections, yet the party continues to poll well nationally. Why?

The Five Stars paradox and political dilemmas after Abruzzo

The dilemmas posed by the results of the Abruzzi elections, following the ones in Sardinia, are not easy to solve. They confirm that it is very difficult for the M5S to hold on to its voters when the game is played at the local and regional level. It would be wrong to reduce the issue to their reluctance to form coalitions: in 2023, in many local elections, the various configurations in which the M5S ran, including all by itself, didn’t make any difference at all. And yet, national polls continue to peg the M5S at a notable 15 percent, a level of support that has been stable for many months. How can we explain this paradox?

I think the key element must be sought in medium- to long-term explanations, not hand-waved as due to contingencies: while the M5S electorate has shown an intense and constant internal turnover from 2013 to the present day, it still carries within itself the signs of a deep-rooted distrust, of an “anti-political” sentiment, of a sense of estrangement toward the “system” or toward the political game. They are voters with a weak sense of party identification. And local elections matter little to these voters, who are inclined to either abstain or go their individual way.

Likewise, what is called “territorial rootedness” doesn’t really apply to them. Unsurprisingly, the party’s project of building a more solid local network has encountered, and is encountering, many difficulties: simply put, it’s not a very attractive prospect for them to be “activists” or “local” leaders (in the classical and inescapable sense of the term).

(One must add that, generally speaking, the importance of this territorial presence for all parties should not be underestimated: we are accustomed by now to looking only at the media performances of the leaders, and we forget how much the networks of direct relationships with people are worth. This was also seen in Abruzzo, with the vote in small towns. Traditions matter: let us recall that Abruzzo was the land of the legendary Christian Democrat leader Remo Gaspari, known because he used to wear a tank top when receiving guests in his fiefdom of Gissi.)

In nationwide elections, the competitive scenario is different, and the test of the European elections will be very revealing. The M5S is the most “personal” party on the scene today. Conte’s approval rate and popularity don’t seem to be fading, and this remains the card the M5S has up its sleeve. On the whole, Conte’s attempt in recent months to carry out a kind of educational project for his own electorate seems wise: starting to get them used to the idea (still quite indigestible for many) that a coalition with the PD is inevitable at this point, especially after the experience of the Conte II government. But it’s obvious that this small-steps strategy is no longer enough: after the European elections, the dilemma will arise again, and it is necessary for all the actors involved to put their cards on the table. All on the basis of some simple facts that one must put before the voters: first of all, the constraints imposed by the electoral systems. Do you want to stay in the game, or will you play to lose (knowing that the latter option also discourages voter participation)?

If anyone thought they could substantially change the internal power relations within the future coalition in the short term, they are truly miscalculating. We know what the “field” looks like, and one or two points up or down, for one or the other party, wouldn’t change the facts of the matter.

The Abruzzi vote, while it had a negative outcome, did show some potential. The total number of valid votes cast in 2019, 2022 and 2024 remained almost stable: in 2022, the sum of the votes of the PD, M5S, and IV/Azione was almost 292,000; now, D’Amico got almost 285,000 (which also raises the question of what happened to the 17,000 votes for UP and Rizzo?). With such a broad and heterogeneous coalition, the bleed of votes appears to be contained and – from early analyses of the changes in voting preferences in L’Aquila and Pescara – attributable mainly to the abstention of M5S voters and the defection of centrist voters. Could this perhaps mean that the compatibility between the different electorates is beginning to grow? We will see soon, with the upcoming Basilicata elections.

The comparison with the 2019 regional elections shows a bleaker picture, but one should recall that the M5S (which got 20 percent) was running alone, and that was during the period of the yellow-green government (in the meantime, the M5S candidate from back then has switched to Forza Italia, a symptom of the cross-cutting nature of the electorate at that time).

What to do, then? There is a need to invent something new: for example, local coalition committees, or even a first draft of a common program, on the basis of which to start some form of widespread consultation across the country. We need to move beyond the idea, which has prevailed so far, of a convergence between the parties on this or that particular issue: in the long run, this is not enough, just as it hasn’t been enough so far.

What is certain is that there seems to be no alternative to the patient effort of building a more politically solid alliance. Those among commentators – and perhaps also within the PD – who think that the PD-M5S axis is not viable should say what other option they would propose. A relentless fight, and a battle to the very last vote, to “destroy” the M5S? Even assuming something like that can be successful, it’s hardly likely that those voters fleeing the M5S could turn to the PD instead.

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