- - Thursday, March 1, 2018

ROME — It started almost as a lark, a giant middle finger to Italy’s long-entrenched and squabbling traditional parties. Now the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement has a chance to shed its image as an ideologically confused group of cranky, inexperienced internet militants and emerge as a dominant player after Sunday’s hotly contested national election.

In a violence-tinged campaign in which immigration has emerged as a top issue and colorful former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is banking on yet another comeback, the big story may be the evolution of the Five-Star Movement. Founded seven years ago by Beppe Grillo, a vulgar, scruffy and outspoken comedian and activist, the party is favored to garner more votes than any of its rivals.

But polls also suggest that the Five-Star Movement, which eschewed professional politicians in picking its candidates, will fall short of the 40 percent threshold needed to automatically form a government, sparking an uncertain period of negotiations between the main parties. Many say the polarizing Mr. Berlusconi could find himself in the kingmaker role.

Italians hope the outcome will differ from the last national vote, in 2013, when the European Union-skeptic Five-Star Movement finished strongly but refused to participate in any deal-making, sparking a long political stalemate.

Mr. Grillo and his supporters have been remarkably successful in galvanizing anti-government sentiment among Italian voters. But the path to becoming a viable political force has proved to be difficult. In addition to mishandling the 2013 vote, Movement officials got poor marks governing Rome and Turin, where it won the mayor’s office, and faced charges of misrepresenting the qualifications of key party officials.

“The task for the Five-Star Movement is to convince voters it is ready to govern,” said Oreste Massari, a political scientist with Rome’s La Sapienza University. “It’s not enough for them to declare they are ready. They must start showing it.”

Italian politics can seem opaque to outsiders. Outgoing Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of the center-left Democratic Party is the country’s fifth prime minister in five years, and voters on Sunday will use a complex, never-used-before system to elect representatives to the two houses of parliament.

But with Italy a prime landing spot for migrants fleeing crises across the Mediterranean in North Africa, the campaign is featuring many of the trends that have upended Western politics on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years: rising skepticism of globalization and international institutions, unequal economic growth, a surge of conservative and nationalist support in the face of rising immigration and the implosion of traditional center-left parties as populist forces surge.

The campaign has also ignited an unusual level of violence as far-left and far-right groups take to the streets in large numbers.

One sign of the vote’s larger significance: The Italian newspaper La Stampa reported this week that Steve Bannon, once President Trump’s senior White House strategist and former head of the right-wing Breitbart News empire, is traveling to Rome to meet with leaders of the conservative, anti-immigration Northern League and observe the election.

New leadership

The biggest change for the Five-Star Movement over the past year came when Mr. Grillo, the founder, stepped down in favor of Luigi Di Maio, a 31-year-old unemployed college dropout who won a seat in parliament in 2013.

If the movement does well enough Sunday, Mr. Di Maio will be the youngest prime minister ever in a country known for elderly leaders. In contrast with the shaggy Mr. Grillo, Mr. Di Maio is fashionable and calculated. He has said he will reconsider long-held Five-Star Movement policies such as a referendum on dropping the euro and the prohibition on alliances with other parties.

Despite that, Mr. Massari said the movement — it steadfastly refuses to refer to itself as a political party — has failed to produce a realistic political platform.

“They still talk about instituting a universal basic income for Italians,” Mr. Massari said. “That would cost [$36 billion to $49 billion] a year for a country that already has a massive debt and can’t afford to pay pensions.”

Still, pollsters say voters seem to be taking the Five-Star Movement more seriously.

It is illegal to conduct opinion polls in the final weeks before an election, but the final round of polls released in mid-February showed the Movement with support of nearly 30 percent of voters. That is just ahead of the center-left Democratic Party and further ahead of Mr. Berlusconi’s right-leaning Forza Italia and the nationalist Northern League, both with support checking in below 20 percent.

“We could see a surprise because there are a lot of undecided voters, but with three weeks to go, the Five-Star Movement had the strongest position,” said Maria Rossi, co-director of Opinioni, a polling firm.

Mr. Di Maio has tried to counter arguments that the Five-Star Movement isn’t ready for governing by naming in advance its nominees for key ministries such as finance, defense and foreign affairs. All are university professors well-versed in their fields, he told reporters Thursday in Rome.

“We are not proposing a government of technocrats,” he said. “The people we have picked put their hearts and minds into everything they do. They know what they are talking about. I challenge the other [parties] to do better.”

Voters offered various reasons for supporting the still largely untested Five-Star Movement, primarily because it is the clearest break with what has gone before.

“I’ve been a lifelong voter of the center-left parties, but I’m probably going to vote for the Five-Star Movement this time around,” said 44-year-old Mario Ossani, a Roman store worker. “We need to shake things up.”

Anna Maria Rua, a 36-year-old coffee bar worker, said she became politically active only because of the Five-Star Movement.

“I grew up very cynical about politics and politicians,” she said. “What I like about the movement is that it isn’t run by politicians. The leaders are people I can identify with.”

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