Italian populist party eyes election top spot

But main challenger to right-wing coalition would likely need to form alliances to govern

Mr Michel Barbet, the first Five Star Movement mayor of the Italian town of Guidonia, is campaigning for the party's causes.
Mr Michel Barbet, the first Five Star Movement mayor of the Italian town of Guidonia, is campaigning for the party's causes.

GUIDONIA MONTECELIO (Italy) • In the industrial town of Guidonia near Rome, its first Five Star Movement (M5S) mayor is pulling out all the stops as the populist movement gears up for a shot at national governance.

Tall, bespectacled and originally from France, Mr Michel Barbet won the mayoralty last year amid an outpouring of frustration and anger towards mainstream political parties.

Although not up for re-election this time round, the man whom locals still refer to as "lo straniero" - the foreigner - is again out campaigning for the anti-establishment movement's causes, notably anti-corruption measures, and this time from a position of power.

"We were elected, almost by default, because of the widespread disillusion," said Mr Barbet.

The 59-year-old, who made Italy his home four decades ago, won last year partly because of an abstention rate of 50 per cent.

"I wouldn't be here if the city had been well run," he said.

The manner of his victory in Guidonia - home to nearly 90,000 residents - resonates across Italy.

Tired of the scourge of corruption and parliamentary paralysis, voters turned to anti-establishment, M5S newcomers such as Mr Barbet in a last-ditch attempt to bring about positive change in Italian politics.

"When you see what we had before, you think that it can't be worse," said Ms Rita, a fishmonger in the city's historic quarter, who did not want to give her last name.

Since their beginnings in 2009, the populists, who support a hotchpotch of policies from across the political spectrum, have surged in popularity.

In the 2013 General Election, M5S took 25 per cent of the vote and the party has since gained representatives at the helm of around 30 cities across the country, including Rome and Turin.

The party is especially popular among young voters, lured by its rejection of old-style Italian politics as well as a promise of a universal basic income.

"They say that Guidonia is a small Rome, because the same political problems have produced the same effects," said Mr Barbet, referring to the 2016 election of Rome's first female mayor, M5S protege Virginia Raggi.

Aged just 37 at the time of her election, Ms Raggi swept to power with 67 per cent of the vote following the "Mafia Capitale" scandal, a vast web of corruption and bribery involving almost every department of Rome's city hall.

Inexperienced in politics, the former lawyer campaigned on a platform of transparency and integrity.

But as political newcomers, M5S members have been accused of incompetence and political flip-flopping after softening their anti-euro and anti-immigration stance in recent months.

Their squeaky-clean image has also been tarnished by the same kind of cronyism and sleaze allegations that have undermined other parties.

"I just hope they're there for us, and even more for our children, rather than their careers," said Ms Silvia, a 40-year-old mother from Guidonia who would not give her last name.

The group is now led by telegenic 31-year-old Mr Luigi Di Maio. He is trying to shift the party away from the rabble-rousing rhetoric of former leader and comedian Beppe Grillo, who has stepped down.

Polls suggest that under Mr Di Maio's leadership, M5S is the main challenger to the powerful right-wing coalition led by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in the March 4 election.

But under the current electoral system which favours coalitions, the party will likely need to make alliances in order to govern.

It has previously refused to ally itself with the traditional parties.

Mr Barbet, who is currently working on a budget in a city riddled with debt, knows his party needs to convince more voters from mainstream parties to join it.

"It's very slow. It's hard to fight against a mafia culture that is so deeply rooted in society," he said.

"It's true that a lot of people no longer believe in politics, but we study, we work, we talk to citizens and we end up getting results."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2018, with the headline 'Italian populist party eyes election top spot'. Subscribe