The millennial who could be Italy’s next leader

In Washington, Luigi Di Maio stood out. Trim and clean-shaven, the Italian politician is a generation younger than most of the members of Congress that he met this week. But if the seemingly improbable occurs and Di Maio’s once-renegade Five Star Movement emerges victorious in Italy’s general election in March, the 31-year-old may join the growing list of youthful European statesmen as Italy’s next prime minister.

In France, 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron shook up the political system by siphoning votes from both the left and right into a new centrist political juggernaut. In Austria, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz is poised to form a conservative coalition under his rule.

“Now is the moment of young people in Europe,” Di Maio told Today’s WorldView in Washington this week. “The entire political class is getting younger and younger.”

But few stories of political ascension are quite as striking as his. Di Maio, who grew up in the corruption-blighted environs of Naples, is a university dropout and has never held a job as a professional. Numerous headlines in international newspapers describe him as a “former waiter.” He rose to attention only through his activism and blogging on behalf of the Five Star Movement, a protest organization founded less than a decade ago by irreverent comedian Beppe Grillo.

In 2013, the fledgling party capitalized on widespread disenchantment with the status quo in Italy and won close to 9 million votes in that year’s elections — a staggering result that shook up the country’s political landscape. Through the movement’s unorthodox system of online primaries, then-26-year-old Di Maio became the vice president of the lower house of Italy’s Parliament, the youngest person to hold the post.

In the years since, the Five Star Movement has jockeyed with the Italian establishment, bringing down the center-left government of former prime minister Matteo Renzi last December after opposing his push for sweeping constitutional reforms. It’s also vying against a resurgent right, with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi — yes, the man behind the “bunga bunga” parties and myriad other scandals — at the helm of a coalition of right-wing parties.

In September, with Grillo’s blessing and the support of other power brokers within the movement, Di Maio won leadership of the party in another online primary. Il Fatto Quotidiano, a daily newspaper, pointed to the online vote as “proof of the eternal immaturity, incompetence, inexperience and thrown-together nature of a movement that is getting bigger but not growing up.”

But to Di Maio and his allies, everything the Five Star Movement does presents a clear challenge to all that preceded their arrival on the political stage.

Read more at the Washington Post.