No laughing matter: Italy's comedian-led Five Star Movement

Italy's Five Star Movement (M5S) is one of the most successful anti-establishment parties in Europe, whose main rallying cries are clean politics, direct democracy, euroscepticism and basic income support for all.

Founded in 2009 by Beppe Grillo, a stand-up comedian, and Gianroberto Casaleggio, a shadowy internet consultant who died in April, M5S shot to national prominence after taking a surprise 25 per cent of the votes in the 2013 general elections.

The movement defies left-right categorizations and shuns alliances with other parties, which it sees as fundamentally corrupt. It is also critical of banks, big corporations and free trade agreements, and wants a referendum on Italy's exit from the eurozone.

M5S' defining characteristic is its reliance on internet consultations among supporters to select its candidates and political priorities, which are communicated online via Grillo's blog.

But critics accused Grillo and Casaleggio of using the system arbitrarily and quashing internal dissent. Of the 163 M5S lawmakers elected in 2013, some 37 were either expelled or walked out of the party.

In 2014, M5S hoped for an electoral breakthrough in elections for the European Parliament, which did not happen. It won 21 per cent of the vote, against a record 41 per cent for the ruling Democratic Party (PD).

In the first round of local elections earlier this month, M5S led polls in Rome and came a strong second in Turin, but fared poorly in other big cities like Milan and Naples, suggesting that it still has some way to go before building a strong national base.

Italians headed to the polls Sunday to vote in run-off mayoral elections in several cities, including Rome, where M5S up-and-comer Virginia Raggi could become the first woman to lead the city council.

In the EU assembly, M5S lawmakers have formed the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group with the British eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the German anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

The death of Casaleggio, who acted as a behind-the-scenes strategist, has raised questions about the future of M5S, but plans to prepare a younger cadre of party members to take over the leadership have been under way for some time.

After saying in 2014 that he was "a bit tired," Grillo has cut down on campaigning, giving more space to M5S' rising stars, such as lawmakers Alessandro Di Battista and Luigi Di Maio. Tellingly, the 67-year-old comic stayed out of Raggi's campaign finale in Rome.

Di Maio, a 29-year-old deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament, is seen as the most likely M5S prime ministerial candidate for the next general elections, due within the next two years. Grillo has always refused to run for office.

Last update: Sun, 19/06/2016 - 12:33

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