The Five Star Movement’s Luigi Di Maio, center, takes part in a flash mob in Turin, Italy, last month. Di Maio took over from Beppe Grillo as leader of the once-renegade party, which is atop the polls going into the country’s March 4 elections. (Piero Cruciatti/AFP/Getty Images)

Born on a comedian’s blog as an irreverent and profane call to arms against a corrupt and complacent political establishment, Italy’s Five Star Movement has long cherished its image as the ultimate renegade. 

But the outsiders could soon be marching in. With national elections only weeks away, Five Star consistently tops the polls. Its leaders, meanwhile, say they would consider teaming with rival parties to form a government — breaking their own long-held taboo. 

After nearly a decade of raging against the powerful, this Netizen band of rebels says it is ready to reign.

“At the beginning, we were representing just one part of the country,” said Manlio Di Stefano, Five Star’s 36-year-old point person on foreign affairs. “Now we want to represent the whole country.” 

The idea of a Five Star-led government is enough to send shivers down the spines of Italy’s political and financial establishment — and Europe’s, too. 

Given the party’s melange of ideas from right and left — including skepticism toward the euro, embrace of Russia and enthusiasm for Internet-enabled direct democracy — the euro zone’s third-largest economy would be in for a jolt if Five Star gets the chance to govern. 


Di Maio, right, poses for a selfie with a young man in Turin. (Piero Cruciatti/AFP/Getty Images)

Most analysts say that is possible but unlikely. Even if Five Star tops the March 4 vote, other parties are expected to team up to try to box the movement out of the government. 

That won’t be easy, however, given that the party’s share of the vote in pre-election polls hovers at nearly 30 percent — well ahead of any other in Italy’s fractured political landscape. Without Five Star involved, efforts to form a government could founder, with the deadlock ultimately ending in a rerun of the vote. 

The potential to disrupt Italian politics, either from within the government or from outside, is exactly what Five Star activists were seeking when the party got off the ground in 2009. 

An outgrowth of a blog penned by the bombastic comedian Beppe Grillo, Five Star tapped a rich vein of discontent in a country where politicians and corruption often have seemed inseparable, and where the economy had been ravaged by a global recession. 

In the early days, followers of the blog came together in vast public demonstrations — dubbed “V” days, a reference to a popular Italian vulgarity — and listened as the wild-haired Grillo colorfully told Italy’s political and economic elite to get lost.

The movement soon fielded candidates, selected via online polls of its members, and in 2013 stunned the political establishment by placing second in national elections.

This year, it is gunning for more. But the mood in Italy has shifted, and so has the party. 

Although household income and employment numbers have yet to bounce back to where they were before the crisis, the economy is ever so slowly returning to life, taking a bit of the edge off the public’s outrage.

Five Star, meanwhile, is seeking to prove it can be a responsible party of government, not just one of protest.

“We’ve become more institutional,” Di Stefano acknowledged.

The change can be seen at the party’s top. The 69-year-old Grillo has given up any active role in Five Star and has been replaced by the clean-cut, buttoned-up Luigi Di Maio, 31. 

The new leader lately has been on a charm offensive targeting European investors, meeting them in closed-door London sessions and granting interviews to business news broadcasters in which he insists that the party has no plans to hold a referendum on Italy’s euro membership — despite years of Five Star promises to do just that.

It is hardly the first time the party has shifted positions. 

“Five Star is a chameleon undergoing continuous metamorphosis,” said Massimiliano Panarari, who teaches politics at Rome’s LUISS university. “It’s really a post-ideological party. The platform changes according to the circumstances.” 

Although successful populist parties abound in Europe, Five Star is unlike any of the others, with stances that straddle the political divide. It believes in massively ramped-up investments in renewable energy, for instance, but also has taken a hard line on immigration, with Di Maio calling rescue efforts in the Mediterranean a “sea-taxi service” that must end.

The party also emphasizes good governance: Its politicians commit to give back half of their salaries to the treasury and to serve no more than two terms at any level. 

If there is a core to Five Star’s beliefs, Panarari said, it is “faith in the ability of technology to solve every problem.” 

Grillo’s co-founder and the party’s financial patron, the late Web-marketing entrepreneur Gianroberto Casaleggio, prophesied an Internet-created utopia that, following the near-destruction of Earth in a cataclysmic third world war later this century, would end all conflict. Citizens of a global government would peacefully resolve their disputes online. 

Five Star nods in that direction. The party crowdsources its legislative proposals and would leave decisions on some of Italy’s thorniest problems to online popular referendums.

To Five Star’s opponents, there is no mystery why the party has won a big following. 

“It’s a perfect machine to obtain votes,” said Claudio Borghi Aquilini, economics lead for the right-wing Northern League. “Everything that is popular, they say they’re for it.” 

But for Italy and Europe, that willingness to flip-flop, when coupled with Five Star’s inexperience in governing, could be dangerous, said Emanuele Fiano, a member of Parliament with the ruling Democratic Party. 

He pointed to Rome and Turin, two places where Five Star won control of city hall but has drawn widespread criticism for its performance in office. 

“The political establishment has to admit its mistakes,” said Fiano, whose party lags in second place and is unlikely to win another shot at governing. “But to change everything is not the way.” 

At a parking-lot rally in the small northern town of Chieri one recent evening, a few hundred Five Star die-hards begged to differ. Huddled under umbrellas as a freezing rain fell, they cheered the party’s candidates — and railed against the status quo. 

“The old politics took away all our hope,” said Sergio Tommasi, a 42-year-old artisan woodworker who has struggled to find work. “Five Star has fresh ideas.” 

His partner, 42-year-old Loredana Sciacca, said she lost her job four years ago and hasn’t found a new one, despite constantly searching. 

She once supported parties on the left, and he used to back the right. But now they’re both squarely behind Five Star. 

“Honesty! Honesty!” the crowd chanted as one of the party’s most prominent figures, 39-year-old Alessandro Di Battista, unleashed a litany of grievances against the political old guard. 

In Di Battista’s telling, former center-left prime minister Matteo Renzi was “a hypocrite,” while Silvio Berlusconi, a four-time center-right premier, was “a looter.” 

“If the other parties had done their job,” he shouted from a makeshift stage as a cold rain dripped down his face, “Five Star wouldn’t have been born.”

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.