For Luigi Di Maio, It’s Now or Never to Lead Italy. Unless It’s Later.


Mr. Di Maio’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement won about a third of the vote, by far the most for any single party. But the right-wing and populist League, led by the equally ambitious Matteo Salvini, 45, emerged as the leader of a coalition of parties that won even more votes, but still not enough to form a government on its own.

As a result, both men have strong claims to lead the next government. Neither seems particularly eager to let the opportunity of a lifetime slip away.

“According to the rules of our democracy, it is necessary that there be some accords between different political forces to form a coalition,” Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, who has the job of cobbling together a sustainable government from the fractured parties, said on Thursday at the presidential palace. “This condition has not yet emerged.”

For now — a key phrase when discussing fluid Italian politics — it seems doubtful such conditions will soon present themselves.

For now, Mr. Di Maio says he is seeking support in Parliament from the center-left Democratic Party, which suffered a crushing defeat and was incessantly demonized by Five Star’s vast and often virulent social media network. (In an interview published in Saturday’s La Repubblica newspaper, Mr. Di Maio said it was time to “bury the hatchet.”)

For now, the Democratic Party has resisted Five Star’s entreaties and retreated to the opposition.

For now, Mr. Di Maio has said he refuses to join any government involving Silvio Berlusconi, the octogenarian whom Five Star leaders called a mafioso and a psychotic dwarf.

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Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, after a meeting with Mr. Mattarella. The League won fewer votes than Mr. Di Maio’s Five Star, but Mr. Salvini has emerged as leader of a coalition that won more.

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Tiziana Fabi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For now, Mr. Salvini won’t abandon Mr. Berlusconi, whose comeback plans suffered a humiliating setback when Mr. Salvini outperformed him.

For now, Mr. Di Maio and Mr. Salvini, who have expressed a similarly jaundiced outlook toward Europe, migrants and changes to the pensions system, are maintaining their opposing positions, despite Roman graffiti depicting the two in a lusty embrace.

And for now, Mr. Di Maio says he is honoring the term-limit rule, of which he has said he is “proud.”

Speaking on March 13 at Rome’s Foreign Press Club, Mr. Di Maio fielded a question about whether the term limit would still be valid if the president had to call new elections. The results of the vote would technically create a new legislature and a third term for Mr. Di Maio.

In response, Mr. Di Maio called the two-term limit “fundamental for us.”

“As I have always said,” he added, “the rule of the two mandates is sacrosanct.”

Rocco Casalino, a spokesman for the party, said it was a “possibility” that in the case of a new election, Mr. Di Maio and all the other newly elected Five Star members of Parliament, including those currently in their second terms, would automatically receive nominations to their current seats. But he insisted such a maneuver had “never been discussed.”

The party has loosened apparently hard-and-fast rules in the past.

It scratched its early ban on members appearing on television, hired a media consultant and flooded the airwaves with telegenic candidates.

It softened its originally draconian rules against members facing legal travails.

It also pledged never to enter a coalition, a promise challenged by the current negotiations over forming a government.

But the two-mandates commandment, central to the party’s anti-establishment character, has held.

Soon before her election as mayor of Rome in the summer of 2016, Virginia Raggi, a member of the Five Star Movement, balked at the question of whether she would ever want to be prime minister.

While her rocky tenure has made such a proposition unlikely, she explained in an interview at the time that since she had served in the City Council, she would be barred by the party’s rules from ever serving again.

“At the moment it’s not thinkable,” she said, adding that she would be free to help out a successor in a free or paid capacity: “I don’t know. Maybe a consultancy, one can hypothesize.”

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For now the Democratic Party has honored the parting wishes of its former leader Matteo Renzi, center, by insisting it resist Five Star’s entreaties and retreat to the opposition.

Credit
Alessandro Di Meo/EPA, via Shutterstock

Pressed as to whether great statesmen such as Franklin D. Roosevelt would have ever had the chance to hold higher office with such a rule, she said, “No, I don’t think so.”

“Let’s put it this way,” she added. “In Italy, professional politicians have ruined politics.”

But some former Five Star members say the rule has ruined promising politicians.

Fabio Fucci, 38, who served an abbreviated term as councilman of the Five Star Movement, was elected as mayor of Pomezia in 2013. Mr. Di Maio and others hailed him as a model of good governance, but when he announced his desire to run for re-election, he found himself on the outs with the party’s power-brokers.

Mr. Fucci argued in an interview that while the rule perhaps made sense 10 years ago when the party was a fringe protest movement, it was now “illogical.”

Now that Five Star had become the leading political force in the country, the term limits prevented the formation of a management class with the necessary expertise at the local, regional and national levels, he said.

To make his case, Mr. Fucci and others traveled up to Milan in the Spring of 2017 to Casaleggio Associates, the internet consulting firm run by Davide Casaleggio, the son of the party’s co-founder and the keeper of the web platform upon which Five Star elections are held.

Mr. Fucci said Mr. Casaleggio, who is unelected and unchecked by term limits, has a “huge role” in political decisions.

“He was inflexible,” Mr. Fucci said, recalling Mr. Casaleggio as saying, “The rule doesn’t change and you can forget it.”

But that was for Mr. Fucci. Now it is the career of Mr. Di Maio, the mainstream face of the party, that is at stake.

If the legislature were to be cut short for new elections, “not only Di Maio but dozens of newly elected members of Parliament” would be barred from running again. “This will weaken greatly the Five Star Movement,” he said.

Beyond automatically reinstating nominations, the Italian press has reported that the party has considered redefining two mandates as 10 years in office.

Mr. Fucci said he considered some such maneuver “very probable.”

“Unfortunately, and I say this with disappointment and bitterness,” he said, “they change the rules because it’s convenient. In this case to save Di Maio and the other parliamentarians.”

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