Anti-establishment party rocks Italian politics

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_ITA130227AA001.jpegROME, Italy – Italy’s anti-establishment Five-Star Movement has been working to shed its image as an upstart movement of inexperienced Internet militants and emerge as a mature political player. On Sunday it will find out how well it has done.

The movement -- founded seven years ago by Beppe Grillo, a vulgar, scruffy, and outspoken comedian and activist -- is favored to garner more votes than any of its rivals in Sunday’s vote. But indications are it will still fall short of the 40-percent threshold needed to automatically form a government, sparking a period of negotiations between the main parties until some coalition of parties amasses a majority in parliament.

Italians hope the outcome will differ from the last national vote, in 2013, when the European Union-skeptic Five-Star Movement finished strongly but it refused to participate in any deal-making, sparking a political stalemate that lasted for weeks.

Grillo and his supporters were remarkably successful in galvanizing anti-government sentiment in the early years of the movement. But the path toward becoming a viable political force has proved to be a difficult one. In additional to mishandling the 2013 vote, the movement has weathered charges ineffectively governing Rome and Turin, two cities where the movement holds the mayor’s office, and of misrepresenting the qualifications of key party officials.

“The task for the Five-Star Movement is to convince voters it is ready to govern,” said Oreste Massari, a political scientist with Rome’s La Sapienza University. “It’s not enough for them to declare they are ready. They must start showing it.”

The biggest change for the Five-Star Movement over the last year came when Grillo, the founder, stepped down as the movement’s leader in favor of Luigi Di Maio, a 31-year-old college dropout who first earned a seat in parliament in the 2013 vote.

If the movement does well enough, Di Maio would be the youngest prime minister ever in a country known for elderly leaders. In contrast with Grillo, Di Maio is fashionable and calculated, and he has said he will reconsider long-held Five-Star Movement policies, such a referendum on Italy’s membership in the 19-member euro currency zone, and the prohibition against alliances with other parties.

Despite that, Massari said the movement -- it steadfastly refuses to refer to itself as a political party -- has still failed to produce a realistic political platform.

“They still talk about instituting a universal basic income for Italians,” Massari said. “That would cost 30 or 40 billion euro [$36 to 49 billion] a year for a country that already has a massive debt and can’t afford to pay pensions.”

Still, pollsters say voters seem to be taking the Five-Star Movement more seriously. It is illegal to conduct opinion polls in the final weeks before an election, but the final round of polls, released in mid-February, showed the movement with support of nearly 30 percent of voters. That is just ahead of the current ruling party, the center-left Democratic Party, and further ahead of the right-leaning Forza Italia party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the nationalist Northern League, both with support checking in below 20 percent.

“We could see a surprise because there are a lot of undecided voters, but with three weeks to go, the Five-Star Movement had the strongest position,” said Maria Rossi, co-director of Opinioni, a polling firm.

Voters had various reasons for supporting the Five-Star Movement.

“I’ve been a life-long voter of the center-left parties, but I’m probably going to vote for the Five-Star Movement this time around,” said 44-year-old Mario Ossani, a Roman store worker. “We need to shake things up.”

In contrast, Anna Maria Rua, a 36-year-old coffee bar worker, said she only became politically active because of the Five-Star Movement.
“I grew up very cynical about politics and politicians,” she said. “What I like about the movement is that it isn’t run by politicians. The leaders are people I can identify with.”

Photo: Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment Five-Star Movement is favored to garner more votes than any of its rivals in Sunday’s vote.

Story/photo publish date: 03/01/18

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
You are here: Home Newsroom Europe / Caucasus Anti-establishment party rocks Italian politics