Italy’s 5-Star populist party names youthful new leader in hope of clinching next year’s election

Luigi Di Maio, deputy speaker of the lower house, had been groomed for the leadership by the group’s founder, 69-year-old comedian Beppe Grillo

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 September, 2017, 4:58pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 October, 2017, 4:12pm

Italy’s anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, riding high in opinion polls, has named 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio to lead it into parliamentary elections next year, which could see it win national power.

Di Maio, deputy speaker of the lower house, is the party’s most prominent and popular politician and had been groomed for the leadership in recent years by 5-Star’s founder, the 69-year-old comedian Beppe Grillo.

Boyish-looking and usually immaculately dressed in a suit and tie, Di Maio presents a moderate image and a striking contrast to Grillo, who is famous for his raucous tirades against Italy’s ruling elite.

“You have given me an enormous responsibility ... I assure you I’ll carry it out with discipline and honour,” Di Maio told supporters at the party’s annual gathering in the Adriatic coastal town of Rimini.

“I promise I will form a government team to be proud of for the first time in our history.”

Grillo, who has so far acted as 5-Star’s de facto chief, is now expected to gradually withdraw from the limelight.

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“I will always be like a dad for all of you, but I am old,” he said.

Di Maio, who has taken tough stances on law and order, and immigration, won by a huge margin over seven rivals in an online member ballot, held last week – showing the movement’s credo of internet-based democracy.

His election was considered a formality because the other candidates were all little-known figures, mostly local councillors.

However, participation was much lower than the party had hoped, with just over 37,400 people voting, compared with more than 140,000 eligible.

Di Maio won 83 per cent of the vote. The only people seen as having any chance against him decided not to run, opening the party to accusations of failing to run a proper contest.

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Di Maio will now try to put that criticism behind him in the run-up to elections due by May next year.

Most opinion polls give 5-Star about 28 per cent of the vote, just ahead of the ruling Democratic Party.

However, that would not be enough to give it a majority in parliament unless it allies itself with another party, something it has so far always refused to do.

5-Star, founded by Grillo nine years ago as a protest movement, campaigning against corruption and vested interests. Its policies include the introduction of universal income support for the poor, boosting green energy and increasing the budget deficit to fund investments in infrastructure.

Di Maio will need to broaden the movement’s appeal and soothe barely disguised resentment among some 5-Star lawmakers over his dominant role in the party.

His first challenge will be a vote in Sicily in November, which offers 5-Star the chance to win control of its first ever region. Victory could be a springboard to national success while defeat would be a major setback after the party spent months campaigning intensely on the island.