WSJ x Capital in English

PopulismusWarum die Wahl in Italien wichtig ist

Beppe Grillo
Beppe GrilloGetty Images

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Last October, Beppe Grillo headlined a protest by the 5 Star Movement, the populist political party he founded. Standing outside the Pantheon he denounced a new electoral law that will limit direct voting for parliamentary candidates and help protect incumbents in national elections on Sunday.

Mr. Grillo, who became famous as a comedian, brandished a white blindfold. “We are protesting blindfolded because this is how they want us—unable to see,” the 69-year-old told a cheering crowd. “They only pass rules that protect themselves.”

The 5 Star Movement exploded in Italy after a weak economic recovery has failed to bring relief, feeding popular anger against the corruption and ineffectiveness of Italy’s political class. Polls show 5 Star could emerge from Sunday’s vote as Italy’s single biggest party, putting it for the first time in a position to play the senior partner in a coalition government or form an even more powerful opposition.

Governing force or protest movement?

Populist groups in Europe in recent years have thrived on rising anger about immigration and the European Union. 5 Star represents a uniquely Italian strain, being overwhelmingly a revolt against Italy’s entrenched political class. The rest of its program is eclectic, borrowing from left, right and technological utopianism. It has centrist views on immigration, and while it was once in favor of Italy’s exit from the eurozone, its leaders say it is no longer time to leave the common currency.

The election is likely to prompt a question that could force 5 Star to define its future—and potentially that of Italy, too. Is it a governing force or simply a protest movement?

On one side are members, including Luigi Di Maio, the party’s 31-year-old candidate for premier, who are pushing it to join an alliance with mainstream parties. According to polls, 5 Star would receive about 27% of votes—not enough to govern alone, but potentially enough to play a major part in a coalition government.

Mr. Grillo has roundly rejected that scenario, saying that unless 5 Star wins an outright majority, it should remain an opposition party. Joining a coalition government is “like saying that a panda can eat raw meat,” he said in January. “We only eat bamboo.”