All About Five Star, Bane of Italy’s Political Establishment


Luigi Di Maio, leader of Italy's anti-establishment Five Star Movement, arrives for an election campaign event in Milan on Feb. 1, 2018.

Photographer: Geraldine Hope Ghelli/Bloomberg

The Five Star Movement at center stage in Italy’s March 4 elections could be helped and hurt by its anti-establishment credo. The populist movement, which says it wants to give power back to the Italian people, may fill more seats in Parliament than any of Italy’s political parties. But having spurned traditional alliances and coalitions, Five Star may not get a chance to govern.

1. What is Five Star?

It calls itself a movement and not a regular political party. It was founded in 2009 as a web-based organization by Beppe Grillo, a comic-turned-politician, along with internet strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio. At first, Grillo 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 its official blog.

2. How strong is Five Star?

Polls before a blackout period was imposed on Feb. 17 suggested Five Star was on course to become the single biggest party, but without enough seats to forge a majority in Parliament. The movement won local elections in Rome, Turin and other towns in 2016, 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.

3. 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. Five Star’s candidate for prime minister is Luigi Di Maio, who, at 31, would be Italy’s youngest premier ever. He studied engineering, then law, without receiving a degree, and worked briefly as a webmaster before running unsuccessfully as a Five Star candidate for his local town council near Naples in 2010. Three years later he became deputy-speaker of the lower house of parliament. In September, Five Star elected him its prime minister candidate and political head. Even if he wins the March 4 election, he’s unlikely to be given a chance to govern, according to a senior state official.

4. Why might he not get the chance to govern?

After the vote, President Sergio Mattarella will likely grant an exploratory mandate to the political leader he deems most capable of forming a governing majority. Because Five Star would have a hard time finding allies, Di Maio is seen as a long shot to receive that mandate. One possible alternative would be a “grand coalition” built around the center-left Democratic Party of current Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and the center-right Forza Italia party led by Silvio Berlusconi, the former four-time prime minister.

5. What does Five Star stand for?

The five stars in its 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.

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

That’s unlikely. For one thing, Five Star has softened its euroskeptic stance; it now says a referendum on abandoning the currency would be a “last resort” after attempts to overhaul EU treaties. Even if there were a referendum, recent polls show only 15 percent of Italians support a euro exit. (Five Star leaders may have noticed that referendums can be hazardous to the political health of those who call them.) And a public vote in favor of dropping the euro wouldn’t be enough to break Italy out of the European single currency, since foreign treaties cannot be abrogated with just a referendum.

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