A year later, in 2013, with a sovereign debt crisis threatening to drive Italy from the euro, 5 Star won 26% of votes cast in parliamentary elections, sending 163 of its members to Italy’s legislature.
Still, Mr. Grillo refused to form coalitions with other parties. In early 2014, when Matteo Renzi, the young new chief of Italy’s main center-left Democratic Party, was seeking political support for his political platform, he asked to meet with the 5 Star leader.
“I am here to show you our utter indignation for what you represent, for the system you represent,” Mr. Grillo told him during the meeting, which was live-streamed. Mr. Renzi cobbled together enough support from other parties to form a government and become prime minister.
Mr. Grillo himself isn’t eligible to run for office, because he was convicted of manslaughter in the 1980s after a car he was driving plunged into a ravine, killing three of his passengers.
The leader laid out rules for the party’s newly elected parliamentarians. They weren’t allowed to participate in TV talk shows and had to donate half their salaries to a 5 Star fund to support small-business owners. Chauffeured cars were forbidden.
The rules sparked tensions. One lawmaker was expelled from the party after appearing on two prime-time talk shows. Four others were kicked out after criticizing Mr. Grillo’s refusal to countenance an alliance with Mr. Renzi in his new government. Another was ejected after donating part of her pay to charitable groups rather than the 5 Star fund for small businesses. In all, 48 of the parliamentarians moved to other parties.
5 Star lawmakers have forced parliament to scrap sweetheart deals to rent office space, which according to 5 Star calculations saved taxpayers €32 million a year. They demanded the end of no-bid contracts for supplies, halving the cost of services such as employee uniforms.
The party hasn’t succeeded with more-ambitious goals. A bid to cut parliamentarians’ base pay by half was rejected—members earn about €10,000 a month, 50% higher than their British peers. A bill to force politicians to give up their seat if they changed parties—common as members jump on the bandwagon of the leading party ahead of elections—failed, as did a proposal to bring parliamentarians’ pensions in line with that of ordinary Italians.
People familiar with the matter say that as elections near, Mr. Grillo has taken a step back in order to allow Mr. Di Maio to lead the movement.
The fiery founder has rebranded his blog as his own thoughts, making it no longer the party’s house organ. He has campaigned far less than in the past, although he will likely headline the movement’s final rally on the eve of the election.
Outsiders can’t picture 5 Star without Mr. Grillo. “I can’t imagine Grillo distancing himself from politics,” said Vittorio Feltri, a newspaper publisher close to the Berlusconi family. “He will surely be the pope of the movement.”
Copyright The Wall Street Journal 2018