March 5, 2018 / 5:00 PM / in 4 months

Italy's 5-Star rebels heading for a date with the establishment?

ROME (Reuters) - The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement has emerged as the big winner in Italian elections, but now it faces very tough choices which will probably involve tying the knot with the establishment.

5-Star Movement founder Beppe Grillo (L) speaks next leader Luigi Di Maio during the finally rally ahead of the March 4 elections in downtown Rome, Italy, March 2, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

The election could hardly have gone better for the maverick party founded nine years ago by comedian Beppe Grillo. It identifies with neither left nor right and draws disgruntled voters from across the political spectrum.

Not only did a powerful, four-party center-right coalition fall well short of a parliamentary majority, but 5-Star emerged as the largest single party by some 13 points, meaning it will be very hard, if not impossible, to keep it out of government.

“There can be no government without 5-Star, everyone will have to come and talk to us,” said lawmaker Alessandro Di Battista, one of the party’s most popular politicians.

Parliamentary arithmetic suggests he is right. The only way to keep 5-Star out would be a coalition of virtually all the other parties, going from the far-right Northern League to the ruling Democratic Party (PD), the biggest loser at the election.

But 5-Star does not have the seats to govern on its own, so now it will have to do what until recently it had ruled out: come to terms with the parties it has always lambasted as corrupt and responsible for Italy’s economic decline.

The party’s 31-year-old leader, Luigi Di Maio, seems to have three options on the table, and each one has potential pitfalls.

He could govern with the far-right League - which under its leader Matteo Salvini made big gains at the election and will be the second largest party in parliament - or with the center-left PD, or as the leading partner in a broad, multi-party alliance.

For months, political opponents have presented 5-Star and the League as natural bedfellows, pointing to a common hostility to Europe’s fiscal rules, big business and the euro.

TOWARDS THE MAINSTREAM

Yet 5-Star has always been a very different political animal from the League and the differences have widened in recent months as Di Maio has shifted the party towards the mainstream and away from previously euroskeptic positions.

He describes himself as “pro-Europe” and under his leadership 5-Star has dropped its pledge to hold a referendum on the euro. On the campaign trail, he vowed to “defeat the friends of (Viktor) Orban, the AfD and (Marine) Le Pen,” referring to the League’s far-right allies in Hungary, Germany and France.

Moreover, a tie-up with the League may upset many of 5-Star’s voters in its main electoral base in the poor south. The League, whose heartland is at the other end of Italy’s boot, until recently called itself the “Northern League” and its leaders and voters derided southerners as dirty and lazy.

Patrizia Calcaterra, a 52-year-old teacher and 5-Star voter in Sicily, where 5-Star took almost 50 percent of the vote, said her joy about 5-Star’s performance was tempered with concern about the rise of the League.

“Don’t you understand that a prime minister like Salvini would be a victory for racism in Italy?” she said.

However, 5-Star voters have proved loyal to Di Maio through several policy U-turns and a grass-roots revolt seems unlikely. Most comments from supporters on the party’s website on Monday expressed a desire to govern with whomever may be necessary.

A tie-up with the PD, Italy’s most establishment party, may be scarcely more palatable for 5-Star’s voters, but it would be far more acceptable to the person who will actually pick the next prime minister: president Sergio Mattarella.

Mattarella, for whom Italy’s image abroad is of paramount concern, will be a key player in coalition talks.

He will be loath to act as midwife for the birth of a government of anti-establishment forces which investors flagged as the “nightmare scenario” before the election.

The PD, decimated in Sunday’s election, may also be a more docile coalition partner. After Di Maio’s policy shifts, the positions of the two parties are now not far apart on Europe, welfare and taxation.

The option of a government supported by a broad coalition of parties would probably be most favored by both Di Maio and Mattarella. With an ample majority in parliament, it may also have most chance of passing a pre-agreed set of reforms.

In his first comments after the election on Monday, Di Maio said he would be willing to talk to all the political forces, stressing that negotiations should be about “policies, not ideology”.

He hopes to reach a deal whereby the other parties agree on a common policy platform and recognize that, as the party that won the election, he and his ministers should implement it.

That may be wishful thinking, and negotiations will be long and hard, but it now seems that one way or another 5-Star’s spell in opposition could be about to end.

Additional reporting by Giselda Vagnoni; editing by Mark Bendeich and Giles Elgood

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