A new direction for Italy’s Five Star Movement? Beppe Grillo distances himself from the party he founded

Italy's Five Star Movement was born on founder Beppe Grillo's personal blog, but now the comedian has formally separated his site from the party and its backers, the latest sign that the party is taking a new direction ahead of the 2018 election.

A new direction for Italy's Five Star Movement? Beppe Grillo distances himself from the party he founded
Beppe Grillo (L) and the party's new leader Luigi Di Maio with the Five Star Movement's new logo. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Grillo started the Five Star Movement in 2009 with web strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio, using the blog and networking site Meetup to gather support and bring people together.

It quickly grew into a formidable force, capitalizing on widespread distrust of the political mainstream to get the second most votes of any party in the 2013 election.

Now with another election on the horizon, set for March 4th, the divorce of the party from the blog that spawned it is a sign that the M5S is keen to take a new direction.

Luigi Di Maio, elected in September as the party's new leader, said on Tuesday that while Grillo founded the M5S, it was now “moving forward on its own two legs and getting stronger.”

Di Maio added that the division did not mean “patricide” or “reneging on the past”, in comments made on late night talk show Porta a Porta.

The top post on Grillo's new blog includes a ten-minute video outlining his vision for the site. “I will go in search of fools, artists, I like to have points of view, but ideas, because I'm fed up with opinions, I'm fed up with opinions,” he wrote, saying that the blog will deal with “future and utopia”. The rest of the site is largely filled with interviews and articles related to technology.

The site's only references to the Five Star Movement are two links to the party's new blog and Rousseau platform, with all other mentions removed.

In recent months, Grillo — currently touring as a comedian — has rarely appeared at party events. Previously he had been the face of the movement, despite a conviction for manslaughter preventing him from running for office.

The move may be a sign of an internal dispute within the M5S about the direction the party should go in, particularly after Di Maio has softened his stance on the euro, relegating the possibility of a referendum on the currency to a “last resort”.

However, it's also possible that this is a deliberate decision aimed at gaining more credibility for the party, which Grillo recently described as having entered its “adult phase”.

“Hitherto it has been an essentially protest movement with Grillo as its figurehead,” James Newell, an Italian politics professor at the UK's Salford University, told The Local.

“Perhaps by formally distancing himself from the Movement, while remaining connected to it in the popular imagination, Grillo is anticipating that the move will enable the M5S to extend its support from pure protest voters to those needing to be persuaded, through its leaders’ profiles, of its potential governing competence,” Newell said.

When Di Maio was elected, much was made of the contrast to his predecessor in looks and rhetoric. Di Maio is young and telegenic, with a background in marketing and a softly-spoken manner far removed from Grillo's showman image and fondness for expletives — early party rallies were known as 'Vaffa-day' or 'Fuck you day'.

Perhaps most significantly, Grillo's new blog shows not only a step back from the party but also a move away from Casaleggio Associati, a technology firm created by the late M5S co-founder Gianroberto Casaleggio and now run by his son Davide. Grillo's blog is now managed by web design company Happy Grafic rather than Casaleggio Associati, which will however continue to manage the movement's blog.

Di Maio denied in his TV interview that Davide Casaleggio had a political role in the party, something many observers suspect, saying: “I am the political leader. Davide Casaleggio does not take the most important political decisions; he gives us support.”

In 2016, a BuzzFeed News investigation uncovered multiple links between the party's leadership and a network of blogs and websites spreading propaganda and fake news.

Though Grillo dismissed the findings as “fake news”, he failed to offer an explanation as to why Grillo's blog, the party's official websites, and other supposedly independent news sites – including TzeTze, a supposedly independent site with over 1.2 million Facebook followers which frequently cites pro-Kremlin site Sputnik – all shared IP addresses, as well as Google Analytics and AdSense IDs, as reported by BuzzFeed News.

On Tuesday, Alberto Nardelli, BuzzFeed's Europe Editor and one of the journalists behind the report, noted on Twitter that: “the company-owned Facebook pages previously used to promote the M5S [including TzeTze] now publish content about food, with previous references wiped out … Other pages appear to have gone all together.”

READ ALSO: Italy debates fines and prison terms for those who spread fake news 


Berlusconi to run for Senate in Italy’s elections

Scandal-plagued former premier Silvio Berlusconi said he plans to return to Italy's parliament in upcoming elections, almost a decade after being forced out over a conviction for tax fraud.

Berlusconi to run for Senate in Italy's elections

“I think that, in the end, I will be present myself as a candidate for the Senate, so that all these people who asked me will finally be happy,” the 85-year-old billionaire and media mogul told Rai radio on Wednesday.

After helping bring down Prime Minister Mario Draghi last month by withdrawing its support, Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party looks set to return to power in elections on September 25th.

It is part of a right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy, which includes Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League.

Berlusconi brushed off reports he is worried about the possibility of Meloni – whose motto is “God, country and family” – becoming prime minister.

Noting the agreement between the parties that whoever wins the most votes chooses the prime minister, he said: “If it is Giorgia, I am sure she will prove capable of the difficult task.”

READ ALSO: Italy’s hard right set for election victory after left-wing alliance collapses

But he urged voters to back his party as the moderate voice in the coalition, emphasising its European, Atlanticist stance.

“Every extra vote in Forza Italia will strengthen the moderate, centrist profile of the coalition,” he said in a separate interview published Wednesday in the Il Giornale newspaper.

League party leader Matteo Salvini (L), Fratelli d’Italia leader Giorgia Meloni and Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi pictured in October 2021. The trio look set to take power following snap elections in September. Photo by CLAUDIO PERI / ANSA / AFP

Berlusconi was Italy’s prime minister three times in the 1990s and 2000s, but has dominated public life for far longer as head of a vast media and sports empire.

The Senate expelled him in November 2013 following his conviction for tax fraud, and he was banned from taking part in a general election for six years.

He was elected to the European Parliament in 2019, however, and threw his hat in the ring earlier this year to become Italy’s president — although his candidacy was predictably short-lived.

Berlusconi remains a hugely controversial figure  in Italy and embroiled in the many legal wrangles that have characterised his long career.

He remains on trial for allegedly paying guests to lie about his notorious “bunga-bunga” sex parties while prime minister.

Berlusconi has also suffered a string of health issues, some related to his hospitalisation for coronavirus in September 2020, after which he said he had almost died.