ROME (AP) — Like elsewhere in Europe and in the U.S., Italy has seen a rising tide of anti-establishment sentiment — and an eclectic grassroots movement is aiming for early elections and 40 percent of the vote now that polls have placed it well ahead of the ruling but fractured Democratic Party.
Italians are increasing looking to comic Beppe Grillo's 5-Star Movement as a viable alternative to traditional parties that have dominated politics for decades, even though the group has suffered its share of mistakes and scandal.
"Do you think that the political categories of left and right can still interpret the desires and impulses, the passions and ideas of a young 20-something European?" 5-Star lawmaker Alessandro Di Battista asked. "Absolutely not."
Di Battista spoke to The Associated Press on the same day Italy's Corriere della Sera published a new poll showing the 5-Stars with 32.3 percent of the vote, compared to 26.8 percent for the ruling Democratic Party. It was the widest margin the 5-Stars have enjoyed, thanks in part to a recent splintering within the Democrats.
The poll, by the Ipsos institute, counted 33.6 percent of Italians still undecided, and was conducted before a new controversy over Grillo's choice for a candidate for Genoa mayor. But analysts suggested Italians are far more fed up with the Democrats and will forgive a few hiccups or flat-out errors by the newcomers.
"Let's give the 5-Star movement a chance and see if things in this country really do change," said Antonio Mollica, a 58-year-old truck driver who attended a 5-Star rally last weekend in Turin to protest the influence of the banking establishment on politics.
While Mollica is a typical 5-Star voter, the movement's appeal isn't confined to the working class electorate that was so crucial to Donald Trump's victory in the U.S. or the Brexit vote in Britain. Nor is the 5-Star platform easily located on a typical political map, with its staunch environmentalism living side-by-side with its anti-euro, anti-bank ethos.
"There is a myth to dispel, as very often we connect the 5-Star Movement voter to a less cultured electorate with lower socio-demographic features," said Gianluca Giansante, a political science professor at Rome's Luiss university. "Today, college professors, architects and teachers vote the 5-Star Movement just as any other party."
Grillo, known for his shock of gray hair, has filled piazzas around Italy with his passionate diatribes against the political establishment since the run-up to the 2013 general election. He has tapped into Italian disgust with the political class at a time of economic woes, banking scandals and political lethargy.
It ended up winning the biggest share of the domestic vote in the Chamber of Deputies. Thanks to its mastery of social media and appeal to young voters facing a 40 percent youth unemployment rate, the movement has grown in recent years and in 2016 captured its biggest prizes to date, the mayorships of Rome and Turin.
It largely rejects the "populist" moniker of other anti-establishment movements and says it's more than just a protest force since it has concrete proposals that draw supporters to piazzas even after elections are over.
Now, the 5-Stars are eying national office and are hoping to reach 40 percent in upcoming elections, a threshold that under the current electoral law would give the party bonus seats in parliament. The vote is expected later in 2017 or at the natural end of the legislature in 2018.
Premier Matteo Renzi resigned following the defeat of a reforms referendum he had backed in December; Premier Paolo Gentiloni, another Democrat, is at the helm of the center-left government and says he hopes to lead the country until elections are due in March 2018.
"We want to go to elections as soon as possible," Di Battista told AP.
The 5-Stars have vowed to eschew coalitions, which have long been necessary to govern amid Italy's plethora of small parties. As a result, it remains unclear how the 5-Stars would manage to run a government when even a big city like Rome has proven difficult for its 5-Star mayor to handle.
Renzi, eyeing a return to office after his referendum drubbing, has been quick to pounce on the latest controversy to strike Grillo after he nixed the candidate chosen online by his base for mayor of his hometown, Genoa. The 5-Stars are known for this form of "direct democracy," and Grillo's decision to field another candidate has soured some supporters.
"Grillo has a fantastic system," Renzi wrote in his online newsletter Wednesday. "Substantially he says: We love democracy. We love it so much that if the one we like wins, great, and if we don't like the winner we'll find another."
Di Battista defended Grillo's decision, saying he is the "guarantor" of the movement and clearly had information that the candidate selected by the 5-Star's online vote didn't necessarily uphold all the movement's ideals or platforms.