Italy’s anti-es­tab­lish­ment Five Star party ready to gov­ern


Italy’s anti-es­tab­lish­ment Five Star party, founded in 2009 by for­mer co­me­dian Beppe Grillo, is itch­ing to gov­ern and has a man primed for the top job.

The move­ment cel­e­brated a shock suc­cess in 2013’s gen­eral elec­tion when it snapped up a whop­ping 25.5 per­cent of the vote, be­com­ing the sec­ond-big­gest po­lit­i­cal force be­hind the cen­ter­left Demo­cratic Party.

“To­day we are ready, much more than in 2013,” Luigi di Maio, one of Five Star’s most prom­i­nent mem­bers, told AFP.

Di Maio, 29 years old and the youngest deputy pres­i­dent of the lower house of par­lia­ment in Ital­ian history, has be­come the new face of the move­ment, dis­plac­ing its loud and tru­cu­lent founder, who is now rarely seen in public.

The pair could not be more dif­fer­ent: where bearded, wildeyed Grillo, 67, shouted abuse to rouse the crowds, Di Maio, who hails from Naples and stud­ied law, speaks qui­etly but firmly and dresses in an im­pec­ca­ble suit and tie, never a hair out of place.

He has tried to re­store cred­i­bil­ity to the Five Star (M5S) af­ter a fall­out within the party forced the ex-comic to take a step back.

While Grillo called last Oc­to­ber for the coun­try to leave the euro “as soon as pos­si­ble,” Di Maio is more pru­dent — per­haps hav­ing watched Greece teeter on the edge of a “Grexit,” which some warned could force the coun­try to exit from the Euro­pean Union.

“Our line doesn’t fore­see a straight­for­ward exit from the euro,” he says, in­sist­ing that it would only ever be con­sid­ered if the com­mon cur­rency “con­tin­ues to stran­gle our econ­omy,”

The party would like a re­formed eu­ro­zone but be­lieves cen­ter-left Prime Min­is­ter Mat­teo Renzi lacks “the au­thor­ity” in Europe to make that hap­pen.

Renzi, 40, is the Five Star’s main ad­ver­sary in the run-up to the next gen­eral elec­tion, sched­uled to be held in 2018. And Di Maio — who be­gan fol­low­ing Grillo back in 2007 — is of­ten named by po­lit­i­cal watch­ers as the man to chal­lenge the PM.

Along with the “Grillini,” as the move­ment’s mem­bers are known, the party’s lead­ers have some tricks up their sleeve to woo vot­ers.

On the Up

In the 16 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties run by the Five Star, in­clud­ing Livorno and Parma, the party has al­ready im­ple­mented a pop­u­lar pro­gram whereby cit­i­zens can choose how a por­tion of their taxes are al­lo­cated.

Those elected, from lo­cal seats to the Euro­pean par­lia­ment, have also re­nounced half their salaries for the past two years, a move Di Maio says has saved some 10 mil- lion eu­ros which have been given as mi­cro­cre­dit to small busi­nesses.

“Around 8,000 (such com­pa­nies) will have been helped by the end of the year,” he said.

Though the move­ment has been ac­cused of “pop­ulism,” he shrugs off the la­bel, de­scrib­ing the party’s pro­gram as a “con­crete pro­ject based on vot­ers’ con­cerns, with fi­nan­cially as­sured pro­pos­als,” such as a plan to in­tro­duce a min­i­mum wage.

The Five Star party “con­tin­ues to grow be­cause Ital­ian pol­i­tics con­tin­ues to be a ‘rub­ber wall,’” he says, de­scrib­ing the way the hopes and am­bi­tions of the pop­u­la­tion ap­pear to bounce straight off the walls of power and dis­ap­pear into noth­ing.

Polls pub­lished this week show the Five Star gain­ing ground on the Demo­cratic Party, with 25 per­cent of those polled now favour­ing the anti-es­tab­lish­ment move­ment com­pared to 34 per­cent for Renzi’s party, which has dropped in pop­u­lar­ity since last year.

The move­ment is keen to seize the mo­ment to make its mark — es­pe­cially now that even the left has been hit by cor­rup­tion scan­dals.

“It seems to us that we are elected when the Ital­ians see all the nas­ti­ness the (main­stream) po­lit­i­cal world is ca­pa­ble of,” he says.

His mo­bile phone beeps. A break­ing news alert tells him that the Se­nate has just voted to pro­tect a cen­ter-right sen­a­tor sus­pected of cor­rup­tion, fraud and rack­e­teer­ing, by re­fus­ing to strip him of his po­lit­i­cal im­mu­nity.

The vote passed thanks to sev­eral mem­bers of the cen­ter-left Demo­cratic Party, who were af­ter­ward ac­cused of hav­ing saved the sen­a­tor’s skin be­cause they had re­ceived fa­vors from him when he was chair of the bud­get com­mit­tee.

“You see, things never change,” Di Maio says with a smile.

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