ROME (Reuters) – Luigi Di Maio will step down as leader of Italy’s co-governing 5-Star movement on Wednesday, a senior party source said, as it seeks to stem a wave of defections that threatens the government’s parliamentary majority.
FILE PHOTO: 5-Star Movement leader Luigi di Maio after consultations with Italian President Sergio Mattarella in Rome, Italy, August 22, 2019. REUTERS/Remo Casilli/File Photo
Di Maio, who is also foreign minister, is expected to announce his resignation during the afternoon at a party meeting, several newspapers reported.
He and his spokesman declined to comment.
While his resignation is not expected to bring down the government, it would underscore deep divisions within 5-Star and inject further uncertainty into already fractious relations with its coalition partner, the center-left Democratic Party (PD).
Italian government bond yields rose 5-8 bps across the curve on the resignation reports, and the cost of insuring exposure to the country’s sovereign debt also jumped
Di Maio’s decision, if confirmed, would come just days before a regional election in Emilia Romagna in which the right-wing League is threatening to end 75 years of uninterrupted PD rule. That outcome could put the government’s survival at risk.
“Di Maio’s resignation is very ominous for the future of the ruling coalition,” said Francesco Galietti, head of political risk consultancy Policy Sonar.
“The PD has just announced a major rebranding is in the works and these things, leaders quitting and party overhauls, only happen in Italy when the house is on fire.”
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he would respect any decision that Di Maio made. “I am sure he would take such an initiative with great responsibility,” Conte told Italian radio RTL 102.5, declining to comment further.
The anti-establishment 5-Star won 33% of the vote in a national election in 2018, but since then its popularity has fallen sharply and recent polls put it at around 16%.
After that ballot yielded no clear winner, 5-Star initially formed a coalition with the League, switching to an alliance with the PD last September after League leader Matteo Salvini walked out of government.
Di Maio, who was just 31 when he was elected 5-Star leader in 2017, was skeptical about joining forces with the PD but, with many of the party’s lawmakers opposed to fresh elections, he was reluctantly persuaded to sign up by 5-Star’s founder Beppe Grillo.
As leader of the largest government party, Di Maio was deputy prime minister, industry minister and labor minister in the government with the League, leaving all three posts to take up the foreign ministry portfolio in the cabinet with the PD.
He is expected to remain as foreign minister should he quit the 5-Star leadership.
Tensions within the party have been fueled by a perception that Di Maio has failed to share power outside his inner circle of advisers.
Since the election, more than 30 lower house and senate lawmakers have left 5-Star’s parliamentary grouping, some defecting and some being ejected. That exodus has left the government with only a wafer-thin majority in the upper house Senate.
Vito Crimi, a little known lawmaker who heads 5-Star’s internal regulations committee, is expected to take over from Di Maio as a caretaker until a new party chief is named, probably at a congress slated for March.
Among those cited as possible leaders are Conte, who was once the party’s candidate for civil service minister, Industry Minister Stefano Patuanelli and Alessandro Di Battista, a former lawmaker who did not stand at the last election but is still popular among party supporters.
Additional reporting by Giulia Segreti, editing by John Stonestreet