A supporter of anti-establishment party Five Star movement holds a portrait of its leader Beppe Grillo, in front of the Montecitorio palace, the Italian Chamber of Deputies, in Rome, on February 15, 2014. The Five Star movement refused a coalition pact and decided not to partcipate to the President Giorgio Napolitano's consultation of political leaders following Prime Minister Enrico Letta's resignation. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Beppe Grillo, the crowd-pulling leader of Italy’s protest Five Star Movement, revels in his black humour and rouses supporters at a campaign rally in Sicily with a warning to the Eurocrats of Brussels that a plague will soon be upon them.

“Did you know the black death that halved the population of Europe in the medieval ages began in Sicily?” Then the comic-turned-activist from the northern city of Genoa delivers the punchline – “And it was carried to Europe by a Genoese ship.”

The anti-establishment movement’s campaign for European parliamentary elections on May 25 is in full swing. Ahead of the poll, the Financial Times is examining Europe’s leading protest parties and how they are challenging the continent’s political landscape. For the grassroots Five Star Movement this means turning the vote into a referendum on Matteo Renzi, Italy’s unelected prime minister who came to office in February by ousting his predecessor, Enrico Letta, in a party coup.

To do this Mr Grillo must keep riding the wave of social discontent and anger at the political elite that made his movement Italy’s most voted party in national elections in early 2013 and in Sicily’s regional polls in 2012.

Yet judging from the mood on the streets of the Sicilian capital of Palermo, support for Five Star Movement is seriously eroding.

In the eyes of some previous devotees, Mr Grillo, who has not stood for election, has been exposed as a demagogue who brooks no internal dissent or dialogue with others. There is disappointment that the movement has lost a dozen of its senators in expulsions and resignations.

His plight is a reminder of the challenges faced by populist politicians, who tend to feed on public frustration, as they seek to sustain the passions of alienated voters. For Five Star Movement, there is the added challenge that Italy is an unusually crowded market for populists, including the far-right Northern League.

For Mr Grillo, those strains where apparent at the Palermo rally earlier this week. While the crowd of about 8,000 supporters was a respectable number ahead of an election likely to produce a low turnout, it was a poor showing by his past standards.

Sicily’s economic plight – with youth unemployment running at more than 50 per cent – and anger at collusion by past regional governments with the mafia propelled Five Star Movement to its past election successes. But the movement’s response as an opposition party to the deepening crisis on the island of 5m people, often a bellwether of national political trends, has cost it support.

“I voted for Grillo before, but not again. He had a chance to do something but it was only words, just like the others,” says Maria, a part-time hotel cleaner. “We needed a revolution. They should have just seized power,” she adds. Her right-leaning boss said she would not vote for him again either, but for a different reason: because Sicily needed constructive politics not a revolution.

Last year Five Star Movement was able to capture disaffected voters from the established parties. From across Italy they were predominantly young, poor, and plugged into the internet – the party’s organisational force and mechanism for decision making is via online polling of activists.

For more radical Italians, Mr Grillo is not revolutionary enough and is becoming part of the “system”.

Roberto D’Alimonte, professor of politics at Rome’s Luiss university, says the movement cannot be categorised accurately as either right or left. It rejects collaboration with France’s far-right National Front and has little in common with the anti-European UK Independence party beyond its challenge to the establishment. Mr Grillo rails against the EU but wants to change it not exit, although he says he will push for a referendum on Italy’s future in the euro.

“Grillo was very adept at segmenting the vote last year,” Mr D’Alimonte says, noting he attracted voters from rightwing parties with promises to slash business taxes, while gaining leftwing votes with his support for gay marriage.

Mr Renzi, an ambitious reformist who craves popular legitimacy having never run in a national election, sees Mr Grillo – who calls him a “little idiot” – as his greatest threat.

The vote is a “contest between hope and anger”, says Mr Renzi whose reform drive appears to be winning back former supporters and is benefiting from the disarray in former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s splintering centre-right Forza Italia.

Polls over the past week mostly show Five Star Movement gaining ground, close to the 25 per cent level it achieved in the 2013 general elections. Mr Renzi’s Democrats are polling about a third of the vote, while Forza Italia has slipped below 20 per cent.

But the opinion polls got it very wrong in 2013, underestimating support for Forza Italia and Five Star Movement in elections that led to a hung parliament and a fragile left-right coalition after Mr Grillo refused to join a government.

Romano, a soft-spoken soldier in the Palermo crowd wearing a Palestinian scarf, believes Mr Grillo is the “last chance” to save the island state from chaos. “Some people say he is like Mussolini but that is ridiculous,” he says, crediting Mr Grillo with channelling angry young people into peaceful activism.

A huddle of university students sharing a beer and a joint say they will not vote at all. “Renzi will be the umpteenth flop, like Grillo and the others. Lots of words and no actions. I am so tired of this,” says Vanessa. “Our last three prime ministers were not directly elected at all, and Grillo is a fascist.”

Striding up and down the stage in an orange ski jacket, Mr Grillo rants for an hour against the usual suspects – corrupt politicians; a Europe that destroyed Greece and drives Italian businesses to decamp to low-cost Romania; industrialists, bankers, and BlackRock, the US asset manager among foreign groups buying distressed Italian companies, helped by Mr Renzi’s privatisation drive.

Once victorious on May 25, the movement will demand early elections in Italy and then check the assets of all past politicians and their cronies, he says. “This is why the politicians and the newspapers hate me,” he shouts. The crowd applauds but is already drifting away before the rally is over.

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