Everything You Need to Know About Italy's Five Star Movement: QuickTake Q&A

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Five Star Movement leader Beppe Grillo after voting in the referendum on Italy's constitutional reform law in Genoa, Italy, on Dec. 4, 2016.

Photographer: Luca Zennaro/ANSA via AP Photo

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement spearheaded Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s defeat in Italy’s referendum on constitutional reform. But that’s just the start of its ambitions to transform Italy and break up the European Union.

1. What is Five Star?

It calls itself a movement and insists it’s most definitely not a regular political party. It was founded in 2009 as a web-based organization by Beppe Grillo, a comic-turned-politician, and internet strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio. Grillo at first focused on uncovering corruption in government and at corporations like Parmalat SpA, branching out into politics as interest in his campaigns snowballed. The movement says it belongs to neither right nor left, and the main source for its views is Grillo’s blog, beppegrillo.it. Grillo is notorious for the expletives he shouts at political rallies -- but at his home in Genoa he is a charming host, playing blues and jazz on a grand piano covered with piles of books.

2. Who would lead a Five Star government?

Grillo’s criminal record from a manslaughter conviction in the 1980s renders him ineligible to serve in parliament. Instead, the 30-year-old deputy-speaker of the lower house, Luigi Di Maio, is being groomed as prime minister-in-waiting.

3. What does Five Star stand for?

Literally, the five stars in the movement’s name represent the five issues it cares most about: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, the right to internet access and environmentalism. The group has attacked corruption in mainstream politics and denounced banker pay while demanding tax cuts for small businesses. Di Maio has criticized European Union budget rules, wants more leeway for public investment and intends to set up a public investment bank modeled on Germany’s KfW.

4. Could the group really pull Italy out of the euro?

Five Star has pledged to hold another referendum on Italy’s euro membership. But winning that vote in itself wouldn’t be enough to break out of the European single currency, since foreign treaties cannot be abrogated with just a referendum. And there’s no guarantee that Five Star would win such a vote, since recent polls show only 15 percent of Italians support a euro exit. Five Star leaders may have noticed that risky referendums can be hazardous to the political health of those who call them.

5. How strong is Five Star?

It won local elections in Rome and Turin and other towns in June, with lawyer Virginia Raggi elected as the capital’s first female mayor. But Raggi has been plagued by the resignations of several of her cabinet members and corruption scandals involving her administration. “Raggi is going through some troubled months,” said Paola Bonesu, political analyst at Elif Lab in Milan. “She has yet to prove she’s able to lead her cabinet and the Eternal City.” Nationally, Five Star is neck-and-neck with Renzi’s Democratic Party, and opinion polls suggest it would win a runoff for a majority in the legislature.

6. So Five Star will win power in the next election?

Popular support may not be enough. The current electoral law automatically gives bonus seats to the leading party in the lower house, to boost stability. That’s spooking mainstream parties, which plan to get together and change the rules before Five Star can benefit in the next election. If the next set of rules favors coalitions rather than individual parties, Five Star may struggle to find the allies required to control the legislature.

7. So Grillo calls himself a comedian. Is he funny?

In 1986, Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi was visiting China. Grillo, in his television routine, imagined a conversation between Craxi and one of his aides: 

- “So there are a billion of them, and they’re all Socialists?” the official asks.
- “Yes, why?” Craxi replies.
- “Because if they’re all Socialists, then who do they steal from?” the official says. 

That joke got Grillo banned from state television for a few years.

The Reference Shelf

  • An interview with Luigi Di Maio.
  • In Rome, Five Star is learning why governing is hard.
  • A QuickTake Q&A on why the referendum vote is unlikely to mean a swift euro exit.
  • A story on how Renzi’s party would seek early elections by summer 2017 if it lost.
  • Following successes in Britain and the U.S., populists are setting their sights on five more targets.
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