He is considered the shining star of a grass roots movement called 5 star that has shaken up the Italian political landscape. Luigi di Maio, 31, in just five years has gone from unemployed university dropout to the front-runner candidate for Prime Minister. The anti-establishment movement he leads is now Italy’s most popular party. His rise to power was as meteoric as that of the Five Star Movement.
While still a student di Maio joined a protest movement led by Beppe Grillo, a comedian who voiced, or rather shouted out, the Italians’ growing frustration for the lingering economic crisis. Grillo never ran for parliament but helped turn the movement into a fully-fledged party. It quickly became clear that this was no joke.
In 2013 Di Maio ran for office the Five Star Movement way: by posting his own candidacy online. He only received 187 votes. Barely a landslide, but enough to gain a seat in parliament.
Rags to Riches
He was quickly voted in as the youngest ever speaker of the lower House of Parliament – his winning pledge: never to call other members “your honour.”
This political rags to riches story has been chronicled by a local journalist from Di Maio’s hometown, Paolo Picone.
“I start my book with a quote from Seneca: ‘Luck does not exist.’ It’s what happens when talent meets opportunity,” Picone says.
“They attack him especially because he doesn’t have a degree. I don’t want to be his devil’s advocate, but if you consider that today’s education minister does not have a degree, our health minister doesn’t have a degree. Why should Luigi di Maio have a degree to become Prime Minister? Give him time to gain competence.”
Until now Pomigliano d’Arco, near Naples, was known until now for being the most industrialised town in the south of Italy. But if di Maio is chosen to lead the next government after the election, this will become famous as the hometown of the youngest ever prime minister of Italy.
In the last national election five years ago, di Maio was one of 160 citizens with little or no experience in politics who gained a seat in parliament. They promised to bring honesty and transparency.
But according to Nicola Biondo, the movement’s former communication director, they brought none of it.
“They behaved like school children without teachers or a principal,” he said.
“The 2013 government started with them arguing over the expenses refund, on daily allowances, over money.”
Reality Replaced Principles
Five Star parliamentarians pledged to leave half of their government salary to a fund aimed at small businesses. But at the beginning of February, it was discovered that some of them only pretended to make the refund and kept the money.
Nicola Biondo thinks that’s sad: “It’s a bitter irony, because this movement was born on the wonderful promise of zero-cost politics. Unfortunately reality replaced principles,” he said.
If Beppe Grillo is the movement’s mouthpiece, and Di Maio its face, the brains was the late Gianroberto Casaleggio.
The founder of a small web consultancy firm in Milan: Casaleggio organised the movement through Grillo’s online blog, creating a database of supporters and arranging campaign events across the country. His ultimate dream was direct democracy through this online platform where ordinary citizens can vote for candidates and legislation.
But critics worry that since his death in 2016 Casaleggio’s legacy is being misused by his son, who now runs the country.
Marco Canestrari is a former employee of Casaleggio. “Whoever manages the portal has access to all data, to everything that happens within the Five Star Movement, above all the votes,” he explained.
“This person is obviously Davide Casaleggio and his technicians and anyone who has access to this data. It means that this person can exercise – theoretically – a political power and a very strong negotiating power towards anyone who wants to join the political activities of the movement.
“Because, even though he declares that he has never carried out any kind of control over who has voted what, it is obvious that everyone knows that, in theory, he can, and cannot be free to express their votes sincerely.
“Gianroberto was betrayed, his original idea was betrayed, was it good or bad.”
Despite the criticism, the Five Star Movement still tops the exit polls. And yet, Italy’s electoral law favours coalitions, not single parties. So after the elections the movement will be faced with a difficult choice: either strike a deal with the traditional parties they say they reject and despise, or remain in opposition.