The M5S was founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009 and quickly grew. It was borne out of apparent frustration with the political establishment in a country with a stagnant economy and widespread corruption at the highest echelons.
The key idea was to use the internet as the engine for a new kind of democracy: social media would be used to spread the word, and online voting would decide the party's platform. Grillo's blog and events organized through networking site Meetup brought members and supporters together.
By the time of Italy's 2013 election, the M5S had grown enough to scoop more overall votes than any other party. Because of its refusal to join a coalition or alliance, something that's more or less essential to play a part in an Italian government, this result didn't put the party in charge of the country. But it showed it was a force to be reckoned with.
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A 2013 rally in Bergamo. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP
The M5S hate categories. They claim to be neither left nor right, and their defining feature is an ‘anti-establishment’ attitude.
Officially, it stands for transparency and is anti-corruption, calling for politicians’ salaries to be reduced and using an online platform to vote on candidates and legislation, as part of its commitment to ‘direct democracy’. However, it has faced criticism for tight control by party leadership: locally elected representatives must abide by a ‘code of conduct’ and get permission from the leaders on numerous issues.
The party was previously described as ‘anti-euro’ due to its pledge to hold a referendum on Italy’s membership of the currency, but under Di Maio the stance towards the euro and EU has been significantly softened. He has stated several times that the party is not eurosceptic or populist.
On other issues, the party's policies are a mixture of the traditional left and right, and often hard to pin down. It withdrew support for gay civil unions in parliament in 2016, despite a vast majority of voting members favouring the bill, and has a relatively tough stance on immigration issues. On the environment and social inequality, though, it's much closer to the traditional left.
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The Movement shocked observers when it scooped 25 percent of the vote in the 2013 general elections, becoming the country’s second-biggest party, and has continued to perform well in polls.
Since 2013, the Five Stars have scored further significant victories, including gaining control of the councils in Rome and Turin in 2016, defeats the rival Democratic Party (PD) called a “painful blow”.
There are some caveats to add. The Movement has seen a large number of defections. And while it may be the biggest single party in terms of popular support, its refusal to ally itself with any of the traditional parties could prevent it from being part of Italy’s next government. However, changes to its rules in January 2018 got rid of the stipulation which ruled out any kind of post-election alliance, so watch this space.
By early February 2018 it had been the most popular single party for several months in polls, at just under 30 percent. However, when coalitions were factored in, the centre-left coalition was very close behind and a centre-right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi had a healthy lead.
In this graph of Italian political opinion polls from February 2013 to January 2018, the Five Star Movement is marked in yellow. Graph: Impru20/Wikimedia Commons
Luigi di Maio is the party leader, elected in September 2017. Aged just 31, the Neapolitan joined the party as a young activist, was elected to represent his native Campania in the Chamber of Deputies and became vice-president of Italy's lower house at only 26. In many ways he's less radical than party founder Grillo, particularly in his views on Europe and the EU, and is a skilled public speaker.
Beppe Grillo is the co-founder of the moment, together with Gianroberto Casaleggio who died last April. The former comedian was known for his vulgarity (early party rallies were known as 'Vaffa days' or 'Fuck you days') and rants, but he led the M5S to its strong performance in the 2013 election. Recently, he's taken steps to publicly distance himself from the M5S, rarely appearing at events and disassociating his blog from the party it spawned.
Beppe Grillo (L) and the party's new leader Luigi Di Maio with the Five Star Movement's new logo. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
Davide Casaleggio, Gianroberto’s son, has run technology firm Casaleggio Associati since his father’s death. Di Maio has denied that Casaleggio has a political role in the party, saying: “I am the political leader. Davide Casaleggio does not take the most important political decisions; he gives us support.” However, many suspect Casaleggio of wielding significant influence behind the scenes.
Virginia Raggi was catapulted from obscurity into a top job when she became mayor of Rome in 2016. However, after promising to improve public services and weed out corruption in the capital, she's since faced a string of struggles and controversies. The city's rubbish crisis has rumbled on, and she and people in her close circle have faced charges of cronyism and abuse of office.
Chiara Appendino was the other Five Star member elected mayor of a major Italian city in 2016: northern powerhouse Turin. She was voted the country's most popular mayor at the end of that year, but has since come under increasing criticism for failing to deliver on key campaign promises such as support for the city's deprived areas and finding a solution for the huge migrant camps in the former Olympic village.