ROME — Born as an anti-establishment protest group, the 5 Star Movement is set to officially become a political party after members voted to accept public funding.
The status change comes after 72% of 5Stars members voted Monday and Tuesday in favor of accepting income tax donations. In Italy, taxpayers can allocate part of their tax bill to a political party rather than to the state. But to receive these donations, a group must register as a political party.
It’s a milestone the 5Stars had never taken, despite becoming the largest party in parliament at some point and head of government for some time. He had backtracked on many issues, on everything from European politics to vaccines, and accepting public money remained one of the movement’s last taboos – but no more.
The change is just the latest in a series of reforms the movement has made as it grapples with an identity crisis, leadership changes and several attempts to restart under the former Prime Minister. Minister Giuseppe Conte.
Despite the low turnout – only a quarter of those eligible voted – Conte hailed the outcome of the vote, saying it was “a great signal” and adding: “We will use this money to strengthen political action in the regions, develop new projects to be close to the needs and demands of the population.”
The 5 Star Movement has always tried to keep the cost of its policy low, using online communication and maintaining no physical premises. To get by, the movement drew money from crowdfunding and its deputies, who had to give up part of their salary to cover party expenses.
But contributions from parliamentarians have declined. And cuts to the total number of seats in parliament make it unlikely that many 5Star backbench MPs will return after the next election. Additionally, about a third of 5-star MPs have defected to other parties.
Meanwhile, the costs of running the movement are set to rise under Conte’s restructuring, which aims to transform the movement into a traditional centre-left party.
Conte has no formal party affiliation but has led two coalition governments, including one under 5 stars. Earlier this year, 5Stars founder, comedian Beppe Grillo, asked Conte to “refound” the movement after he was ousted as prime minister in January in favor of Mario Draghi. In August, Conte won overwhelming support for his plan to reshape the 5-stars, with a top-down power structure and official headquarters.
This week’s vote signaled further support for these reforms. After the vote, 5Stars MP Michele Gubitosa wrote on Twitter: “All Italians can voluntarily choose to finance our political force… We are advancing on the new path of the 5-Star Movement.”
Conte’s changes are not popular with everyone and have provoked an angry reaction from some corners of the group who claim that the 5 Star Movement eschews the spirit of the original movement and deprives its members of direct democracy.
5Stars Senator Primo di Nicola wrote on Facebook that the use of public funding represents “a historic and decisive step” that would make 5Stars “the same as the vilified party system”.
He added: “To use public resources and funding is to become a party like any other, to give up almost all hope of changing the political system.”
5Stars Senator and former Infrastructure Minister Danilo Toninelli said: “M5S has to evolve, we all know that,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it has to do it by becoming like the other parties.”
A person close to Conte said only a handful of 5Stars lawmakers, three out of more than 250, spoke out against the decision. “The base indication is very clear,” the person said. “They ask us to fully and convincingly embrace the path of refounding the movement.”
Rome-based 5Stars campaigner Massimo Lazzari said most members were in favor of the decision to accept tax-based donations, but added that many did not understand the decision meant registering as an official party.
The decision could cost the movement votes, he said: “We showed that we could do it without money, it worked very well. From now on, we will lose the revolutionary spirit of the movement and we will be perceived by the voters as the same as the other parties.