ROME — Promoting women to top jobs is not proving as popular as Italy's 5Star Movement thought.
Ahead of this month's European Parliament election, the party is seeking to draw a sharp line between itself and Matteo Salvini's League, its far-right coalition partner, in an attempt to stop hemorrhaging voters.
Showcasing female empowerment seemed a logical choice, given the League's moves in the opposite direction. When Salvini and the League-led family ministry championed a conference urging a return to traditional — some would say outdated — gender roles in March, 5Star leader Luigi Di Maio responded by announcing an all-female shortlist of women professionals to front the party's European election campaign.
"At a time when they say that to help families have children you need to keep women shut at home at their stoves, the decision to present female talent that represent excellence in their world is definitely a signal," Di Maio told television channel La 7 in April. "The conference also represented for us a way to show that once again there are deep differences between us and the League."
Di Maio's group of top candidates is comprised of five women from a variety of fields: Sabrina Pignedoli, a journalist who investigates mafia crime; Alessandra Todde, the former CEO of software developer Olidata; Chiara Maria Gemma, a university professor; Maria Angela Danzì, a former Genoa council leader; and Daniela Rondinelli, an official at the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels.
The handpicked group of five women — none of whom had been 5Star members prior to their selection as candidates — were placed at the top of the ballot paper in their respective electoral regions, a position that normally attracts the most votes within any party, virtually guaranteeing they will win a seat.
But the 5Stars' base is up in arms over the appointments. Parachuting in external talent conflicts with two of the party's core tenets: meritocracy and direct democracy.
Normally, 5Star election candidates are selected by the party's members via its online portal Rousseau, although rules were softened to allow Di Maio to select some external candidates for last year's parliamentary election. In its European election manifesto, the party pledged even more direct democracy.
Luca Miniero, a 5Star activist in Rome and the eastern region of Le Marche, said: "Candidates are traditionally chosen by members, who have put in time and money and their face."
Prior to Di Maio's announcement, the 5Star members had already selected their preferred candidates, of which more than 50 percent are women. Activists say that the new candidates' appointment effectively demotes existing MEPs seeking a second mandate, and female candidates.
Technically, the members did have a say: The selection of the five women was put to a vote on Rousseau, and all five were approved as candidates. But some activists expressed disbelief at the result.
"I am in WhatsApp groups and Facebook groups with hundreds of activists, and I don’t know a single person who voted Yes," Miniero said.
Some 5Star members also oppose an all-women shortlist in principle. Massimo Lazzari, a Rome-based activist, said: ‘To select only women is discrimination."
The party can claim some achievement in promoting gender equality, with female leaders including the mayors of Rome and Turin and women representing more than 50 percent of electoral candidates. Yet the 5Stars have long been opposed to all-women shortlists, dubbed "pink quotas" in Italy.
When former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi nominated an all-female group to lead his Democratic Party for the 2014 European election, winning more than 40 percent of the vote, the 5Stars were critical. "It is not as if women are pandas that need to be looked after," lawmaker Marta Grande said at the time.
The party's women politicians are equally critical of Di Maio's move. For 5Star Senator Elena Fattori, there is nothing empowering about a male leader cherry-picking female candidates: "There is no need for charity from the male power of the day to validate us," she said.
In addition to being an attempt to distinguish his party from the League, Di Maio's initiative is likely a calculated attempt to court women voters ahead of the election. Despite the Movement's attempts at establishing gender parity, women are less likely to vote for the 5Stars than men.
The 5Stars have been shedding voters since coming to power last summer — with support falling by 13 percentage points among women versus 11 points among men, according to pollster Noto Sondaggio. A poll by Quorum/You Trend for Sky TG 24 in April found that 20 percent of women plan to vote for the 5Stars, compared with 25 percent of men.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the nominees themselves support including external female candidates. Rondinelli, who described herself as a "long-term sympathizer" of the Movement, said that Di Maio's decision to put women at the forefront of his party's campaign sent "a very strong and positive sign to the country and society that women can contribute more."
She added: "Italy still has low participation of women in politics and women can struggle to get access to political roles."
Todde, the former CEO, said she was put forward by activists in Sardinia, where she lives. She also expressed support for all-female lists, saying: "There are not yet as many women in politics as men. To have professional women is a sign of change. Women in politics can bring a different point of view."
The party offered Todde a spot on the candidate list just over a month ago, giving her little time to prepare for the campaign trail and get up to speed with the party line. But she said that her professional background makes up for her lack of experience in politics. "I think activists understand their work is important — but also our experience."
Pignedoli, the journalist, believes that she and the other women have been chosen on the basis of merit. She said she had been selected due to her anti-mafia work in journalism and that she came to the 5Stars' attention because of her work as a consultant to the anti-mafia commission in the Italian parliament.
"This isn't 'pink quotas,' where there is an obligation to insert a certain number of women, this is meritocratic," she said. "If there is a capable woman, she should be on the list. Women should not be penalized because they are women."
With many members unhappy over what they see as positive discrimination, Di Maio's initiative may backfire. Either way, it would take more than women shortlists to attract the millions of female voters the 5Stars need to win against their increasingly dominant coalition partner.
Giovanni Orsina, a professor of political science at Rome's Luiss university, does see one silver lining: The candidates could at least distract from the party's lack of concrete policy proposals, he suggested.
"The 5Stars started as a protest movement, so it has problems coming up with concrete political proposals that don’t cost a lot of money," he said, adding that "new faces" could compensate somewhat for the party's "lack of any political content."
Others see Di Maio as the main beneficiary: Nicola Biondo, a former 5Star communications officer and author of a book on the movement, said that selecting candidates helps to shore up Di Maio’s own power, handing the party leader tighter control over his MEPs.
"Long-term 5Star activists have their own small support base in the movement, so they can be more independently minded. But outsiders who have no base will always be grateful for the opportunity and are therefore easier to control," Biondo said.
Di Maio's all-women shortlist is unlikely to widen the party's appeal: Italy remains a deeply patriarchal country with the Catholic Church still wielding considerable influence and the League, championing conservative "family values," in the ascendant.
The Italian media, meanwhile, dubbed the five women "Giggino's Angels," after Di Maio's nickname Gigi, invoking — somewhat unfairly — the bevvy of weather girls and beauty queens that featured in former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Cabinets.
It's an uncomfortable label for Di Maio and his party, whose identity and legitimacy are rooted in opposition to the Berlusconi-era days of "bunga bunga" and backroom politics.