Luigi Di Maio resigned as leader of Italy’s co-governing Five-Star movement on Wednesday.
Di Maio, who is Italy’s foreign minister, told the party’s other ministers of his decision at a meeting before announcing it publicly.
While his resignation is not expected to bring down the government, it underscores deep divisions within Five-Star and injects further uncertainty into already fractious relations with its coalition partner, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD).
“This is a difficult time for our movement,” Di Maio said during an hour-long speech in which he pledged to maintain a front-line role and took frequent swipes at alleged disloyalty from some party colleagues.
“The noise of a few has drowned out the work of a great many of us,” he said in reference to frequent internal infighting. “In these years we have seen two types of people: Those who put our movement before themselves, and those who put themselves before the movement.”
Italian government bond yields rose in early trading on reports of Di Maio’s resignation, and the cost of insuring exposure to the country’s sovereign debt also jumped.
The decision by Di Maio, who is expected to remain as foreign minister, comes 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 earlier 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.
Analyst Massimiliano Panarari, writing Wednesday in La Stampa, said Di Maio was a “natural scapegoat,” because he had taken on so many portfolios — deputy premier, labour minister and minister of economic development in the first government, and now foreign minister.
The anti-establishment Five-Star won 33 per cent 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 per cent, with a poor result in last year’s European parliament elections.
After the 2018 national vote yielded no clear winner, Five-Star initially formed a coalition with the League, switching to an alliance with the PD last September after firebrand League leader Matteo Salvini walked out of government.
Dozens of defections
Di Maio, who was just 31 and had little professional work experience when he was elected Five-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 Five-Star’s founder Beppe Grillo.
As leader of the largest government party, Di Maio was deputy prime minister, industry minister and labour minister in the government with the League, leaving all three posts to take up the foreign ministry portfolio in the cabinet with the PD.
Tensions within the party have been fuelled 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 Five-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.
Di Maio said Vito Crimi, head of the internal rules committee, will be the interim leader of the party, with a permanent replacement to be named during a leadership contest over the coming months.