AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Italy holds its general election on Sunday, and a party founded by a comedian on an anti-establishment platform is in the lead. The Five Star Movement has set its sights on heading the next government. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has more.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Last month, Five Star's 31-year-old leader, Luigi De Mayo, announced his party candidates, chosen to counter charges of incompetence from critics.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LUIGI DE MAYO: (Through interpreter) These are not competent people. They are super competent. In politics, both brains and heart are needed.
POGGIOLI: Candidates range from teachers and surgeons to the admiral who commanded naval operations in NATO's 2011 Libya attack. Hours later, the admiral withdrew. It turned out he had been elected in his town last year on a rival party slate. More embarrassing were recent expulsions of 12 MPs who broke party rules obliging them to give 50 percent of their salaries to a small business fund. Five Star has been running Rome City Hall since 2016, but its mayor is widely criticized for declining city services. At this marketplace, stall owner Claudio Zampa has a strong case of voter's remorse.
CLAUDIO ZAMPA: (Through interpreter) Look at all these Five Star people. They think they're saints. We all voted for them last time, but never again.
POGGIOLI: Despite bad reviews in Rome, nationwide Five Star is No. 1 in the polls at more than 27 percent. Founded less than a decade ago by comedian Beppe Grillo, Five Star's claim to be an Internet-based direct democracy attracted many Italians disaffected with traditional parties. It's openly populist, anti-immigration, anti-vaccinations and anti-European Union. Many analysts worry about Five Star's foreign policy, including a call to lift EU sanctions on Russia. Founder Grillo has praised both Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump as strong statesmen, a blessing for mankind.
Jacopo Iacoboni is the author of a book on the movement. Contacted by Skype, he says there's no evidence of Russian financing.
JACOPO IACOBONI: But we have strong evidence of a series of meetings with the Russian officials. And there are a lot of people in the Five Star that are openly pro-Russia.
POGGIOLI: The news site Buzzfeed has reported that Five Star platforms posted content from the Russian outlet Sputnik, as well as many fake stories, including a claim the U.S. State Department secretly funds traffickers smuggling migrants to Italy. Founder Grillo dismissed charges of spreading fake news online as ridiculous. But Michele Testoni, professor of international affairs at Rome's John Cabot University, says Five Star has mastered the use of automated accounts known as bots.
MICHELE TESTONI: They're created exactly to invent issues or to spread massively news that are favorable to the party, maybe to Russia, and therefore to counter news that are unfavorable.
POGGIOLI: A U.S. Senate report last month highlighted the Italian election as a potential target for Kremlin meddling, and Italy's just-released annual report on security threats warned about online disinformation. Without naming names, the report cited what it calls influence campaigns that aim to condition both the sentiment and political orientation of public opinion, especially at election time. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
(SOUNDBITE OF BATTLES' "FUTURA")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.