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The leader of the Five Star Movement, Beppe Grillo, delivers a speech during a campaign meeting upon a referendum on constitutional reforms, on December 2, 2016 in Piazza San Carlo in Turin.MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP / Getty Images

Beppe Grillo, leader of Italy's populist, Euroskeptic Five Star Movement, was not spotted anywhere near the European Union's 60th-anniversary celebrations in Rome on Saturday, which was attended by 27 EU leaders. But there is no doubt his presence was felt as some of the leaders tallied up the threats to the union's integrity, ranging from immigration and youth unemployment crises to the rise of populist parties.

M5S, as the movement is called, has emerged as Europe's biggest populist party and, if the polls are right, stands a better chance of forming a government than the National Front, the French Euroskeptic (and entirely xenophobic) party whose leader, Marine Le Pen, seeks a win in the first round of the presidential election on April 23. She will lose the second round to the pro-European liberal Emmanuel Macron, the polls say.

As economists, investors and the media focus on the two-stage French presidential election and the German election in September, where victory by a Euroskeptic party is unimaginable, Italy's populists are on a roll. M5S, the creation of Mr. Grillo, a comedian and blogger who cannot enter parliament because of an old manslaughter conviction related to a car accident, is polling several points ahead of the ruling Democratic Party (PD). He could come out on top in the next election, which may happen in the fall and has to happen by next spring.

M5S's ragtag army of populists, euroskeptics, environmentalists, centrists, right-wingers and left-wingers – the party draws candidates and voters from the entire political spectrum – is no joke, no flash-in-the-pan. Formed only eight years ago, it won more than a quarter of the vote in the 2013 general election, making it Italy's biggest opposition party and Europe's biggest elected anti-establishment party. A year later, it placed second among Italian parties in the European Parliament elections. Since then, it has won municipal polls in several big cities, including Rome, Turin and Livorno, and dozens of small ones, especially in the south, where youth unemployment is cruelly high.

If M5S wins the election, and succeeds in forming a government, Italy, the euro zone's third-largest economy, stands to become the first European country to be ruled by a populist government (the polls say Ms. Le Pen will not prevail in the second round of the presidential elections).

"Five Star is an expression of growing disenfranchisement with the established parties," said Francesco Galietti, chief executive of Policy Sonar, a political risk consultancy in Rome. "Either you opt out of voting or you vote for Five Star."

Its victory would shake the foundations of Italy, the EU and the euro. Italy was one of the six founding nations of the EU's predecessor, formed by the 1957 Treaty of Rome. The EU's 60th birthday party bash is to be celebrated in Rome on March 25, and while the EU leaders are expected to issue a grand statement to declare their undying unity, there is no doubt the 28-country region is under enormous stress. Britain is leaving and euroskeptic parties are on the rise.

While M5S insists it would stick with the EU, it's an open question whether EU membership is compatible with M5S's euro skepticism. Support for the common currency is falling in this economically crippled country and Mr. Grillo has vowed to hold a referendum on the euro.

On a recent train trip to Livorno, in northern Italy, and to Naples, in the south, The Globe and Mail talked to many Italians about their voting intentions. Most, but certainly not all, said they would vote for M5S even if a few of them had serious reservations about some of M5S's policies, or lack thereof. Some were put off by Virginia Raggi's dreadful performance as mayor of Rome, M5S's showpiece political posting.

In spite of the travails of Ms. Raggi, there is a sense that M5S's national ambitions are set to be fulfilled, all the more so since the PD has been in mutinous disarray since Matteo Renzi resigned as prime minister and PD leader after his resounding defeat in the December referendum on constitutional reform.

M5S, which had campaigned against the constitutional changes, celebrated Mr. Renzi's defeat. Since then, M5S has picked up momentum. "Those who dare, the stubborn, the barbarians will carry the world forward, and we are the barbarians," Mr. Grillo said late last year, predicting that PD would lose the next election to his party.

The M5S 'movement'

Livorno seems an unlikely city to emerge as an M5S power base. It is better known for communists and socialists than an anti-establishment party that can't be pinned down on the political spectrum.

It is Tuscany's second biggest city, after Florence, and the region's main seaport.

As a working-class port city, Livorno was ripe ground for Communist party organizers. The Communist Party of Italy was formed in Livorno in 1921 and would, in the 1960s and 1970s, become the largest Communist party in the capitalist world. The party faded away in the 1980s and evolved into the centre-left Democratic Party. Livorno's old communists and socialists endorsed the Democrats and kept doing so until 2014, when a short, bald, bearded aerospace engineer named Filippo Nogarin, a local boy who had spent most of his career well outside political circles, emerged as the surprise winner of the mayoral race.

"To me, Five Star was the only party that represented an alternative to a system that doesn't work in favour of the citizens," he said in mid-March from his expansive offices in the Palazzo Grande, the 18th-century palace that houses Livorno's municipal offices.

Mr. Nogarin, 46, was similar to many budding M5S candidates in that he was a rank outsider who concentrated on his professional career and felt alienated from the political system for decades. When he finally got fed up with the endless rot, sleaze and inefficiencies, he decided the only way to fix the system was to attack it from the outside by joining the upstart M5S anti-establishment, anti-corruption movement. "In Livorno, I represent the revolution," he said. "We are a response to a need – honesty."

Mr. Nogarin opted for the rumpled, casual look that seems to be the uniform of so many MS5 politicians – jeans and sports jacket. Out went the chauffeur-driven car. He concedes his job has not been easy, given the entrenched PD forces and the dire state of the local economy. He has launched plans to ramp up the tourism sector, revive the canals and protect the region's small aerospace industry. He says his biggest victory came in March, when he orchestrated the rescue of the local waste-management company, which had been a sorry saga of mismanagement under the PD government and a drain on the taxpayer.

While Mr. Nogarin and his tough style have not made him the most loved mayor in Tuscany, far from it, his support among voters is still a relatively high 50 per cent. Ignazio Favaloro, 63, the driver of a tourist boat that plies Livorno's canals, voted for the PD for decades and switched to M5S to drain the swamp. "Five Star seems like a party of honest people," he said. "They don't seem like politicians."

Andrea Verdura, 41, the owner of a fashion studio in Livorno that makes leather boots and shoes from recycled fishing nets, hasn't voted for years because he is so disgusted with the mainstream parties – "I don't vote because nothing changes" – but plans to vote in the next election and will pick M5S. "They are the only ones who can change anything in this country," he said. "We must get rid of everyone in power."

He compares Mr. Grillo, M5S's loudmouth, firebrand leader, to Paul Watson, the Canadian founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose anti-whaling and anti-poaching crusades have made him a loveable rogue among conservationists and condemned as a near terrorist among his targets. "The Five Stars are young and they are activists," he said. "They're going after the establishment like the Sea Shepherd goes after its enemies."

While M5S draws much of its support from Italy's youth, some young people are not convinced the party is ready to govern even if they are attracted to its throw-the-bastards-out crusade, devotion to public ownership of utilities and direct-democracy philosophy, such as using a referendum to let citizens decide whether the euro should live or die in Italy.

Rosaria de Gaetano, 20, a University of Naples student of Oriental languages, is put off by Ms. Raggi's run in Italy's biggest city. "I won't vote for Five Star because there are so many things I don't know about them and Virgina Raggi has been involved in so many scandals."

Ms. Raggi, a 38-year-old lawyer, crushed her PD opponent in the second round of voting in last June's Rome municipal election but has since lurched from one crisis to another. Her former head of personnel is in prison on corruption charges. Her top urban planning official, Paolo Berdini, recently resigned after accusing Ms. Raggi of being too cozy with construction companies. In an interview with La Stampa newspaper, he said she was "structurally unprepared for office." Mr. Raggi herself is under investigation for abuse of office.

The PD, of course, is delighted by Ms. Raggi's mishaps. Michela di Biase, leader of the PD on the Rome city council, told the media earlier this month that Ms. Raggi demonstrates that the M5S "is unsuitable for government."

Ms. di Biase could be accused of wishful thinking, for the mayor of Turin, Chiara Appendino, 32, belongs to M5S and has an approval rating of more than 60 per cent, making her Italy's most popular big-city mayor.

A late February poll done by EMG Acqua put M5S at 28 per cent, marginally ahead of the PD. The Northern League, a xenophobic, anti-euro party that admires Ms. Le Pen's National Front and U.S. President Donald Trump, is running third, at about 12 per cent. Forza Italia, the ailing centre-right party of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, is just behind the Northern League. A more recent poll, by TG La7 television, put M5S at 30 per cent and the PD at 27 per cent.

If a national election were held today, M5S would probably place first, which is not to say it would form the next government, since coalitions are the rule in Italy. Mr. Grillo doesn't like political parties – he calls M5S a "movement" – and considers all the established parties corrupt and undemocratic. But if M5S wants a shot at government, it may have to lose its independent streak after the next election.

Courting the youth vote

It is inaccurate to compare M5S with Ms. Le Pen's openly xenophobic and anti-globalization National Front.

Mr. Grillo and his lieutenants are not racist or xenophobic, though they sometimes give vague answers on how Italy's role on the front lines of the immigration and refugee crises should be handled. The National Front occupies the hard right on immigration but has socialist-leaning, protectionist views on the economy. M5S's economic ideology, like its political ideology (other than it is anti-establishment and anti-corruption) is hazy, though it thinks the Italian government is grotesquely top heavy, the pension system unsustainable and the powerful left-wing unions guilty of protecting jobs at the expense of job creation and mobility.

Where the National Front and M5S overlap is their skepticism on the utility of the euro – the National Front wants out of the euro, M5S wants a referendum on it – and their widespread appeal among young voters.

According to a recent IFOP poll in France, the National Front is the most popular party in the 18-24 age group, with 39 per cent of the intended votes.

In Italy, youth unemployment was a shocking 37.9 per cent at last count (compared with the overall unemployment of 11.9 per cent) and was more than 50 per cent in some parts of the south, such as Sicily.

No surprise, then, that support from frustrated youths is driving M5S's popularity. A recent report by London analyst Antonio Guglielmi of Mediobanca Securities said that nearly 50 per cent of the 18-24 age group support M5S while the older generations endorse the PD by a similar proportion. "Italian politics is no longer sitting on the old-style right-versus-left split," Mr. Guglielmi said. "The country is rather split in the young-versus-old-people dichotomy."

He said that's another way of saying it is split between those who have jobs and pensions (the old) and those who don't (the young).

Gennaro Salzano, a young Neapolitan who works at a hotel on Capri, says he will vote for M5S because the established parties have done nothing on the job-creation front and because he thinks Italy should ditch the euro and reprint the lira to make itself more competitive. He's in favour of the M5S's pledge to hold a referendum on the euro. "Before, people here voted their ideology," he said. "Today you vote for self interest. Five Star will win, but they need to form a coalition to govern."

Back in Livorno, Mr. Nogarin, the M5S mayor, and the citizens who voted for him said they have no doubt M5S will go onto populist triumph even if the populist movement elsewhere in Europe stalls. "We will win," Mr. Nogarin said. "Italy has to get rid of governments that are corrupt and incompetent. Five Star represents a renewal."

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