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Italy: 5-Stars open new phase, pick candidate for premier

Leader of the 5-Star Movement, Beppe Grillo, performs on stage during a meeting in Rimini, Italy, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. (Filippo Pruccoli / Associated Press)
Leader of the 5-Star Movement, Beppe Grillo, performs on stage during a meeting in Rimini, Italy, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. (Filippo Pruccoli / Associated Press)
By Nicole Winfield Associated Press

ROME – Italy’s anti-establishment 5-Star Movement opened a new phase in its quest for the country’s premiership Saturday by choosing its candidate and party leader to take the reins from founder Beppe Grillo.

Members of the movement cast ballots online for one of eight candidates. But the winner was all but predetermined since Grillo has made clear he wants his successor to be Luigi Di Maio, the 31-year-old vice president of parliament’s lower chamber and the only well-known candidate among the eight.

The 70-year-old Grillo, a comic who turned his upstart populist movement into the biggest opposition party in parliament, has been intent on turning the movement over to a new generation. But he has also made it clear he will continue to be its ideological “guarantor” behind the scenes.

“I’m the founding father, but I’m here,” Grillo said.

Italy’s next general election must be held by spring. Recent polls put the 5-Stars head-to-head with the ruling Democratic Party of ex-Premier Matteo Renzi as the largest single party vote-getter, with around 26 percent of the vote.

But the 5-Stars have ruled out forming a coalition. Recent surveys have given a hypothetical center-right coalition of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, the anti-immigrant Northern League and smaller parties around 34 percent of the vote.

Lawmakers are haggling over a new electoral law that could determine what a future government could look like.

At a campaign-style event this week, the 80-year-old Berlusconi dismissed Di Maio as a “political meteorite who looks good on TV but brings nothing to Italians.”

Grillo, for his part, poked fun at Berlusconi’s umpteenth political return, saying he hopes he doesn’t end up on the campaign trail at Berlusconi’s age.

Neither Berlusconi nor Grillo can actually run for office. Grillo is barred by a 1981 manslaughter conviction stemming from a car accident, whereas Berlusconi is barred due to a tax fraud conviction. He has appealed his case to the European Court of Human Rights, which is to hear the case later this year but isn’t expected to rule before the election.

Di Maio is the face the 5-Stars want for the future, a native of Naples who never finished university but can effectively articulate the party’s anti-establishment, anti-banking, pro-environment message. He was first elected to parliament in 2013 and, at 26, became the youngest-ever vice president of the lower Chamber of Deputies.

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