Grassroots Populism: Comedian Beppe Grillo Shakes Up Italian Politics

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All across crisis-hit Europe, voters are disillusioned with mainstream politicians and are turning to populist and radical parties. In Italy, the new rising force iscomedian Beppe Grillo's grassroots Five Star Movement. But can the charismatic agitator supply real solutions to the country's problems?

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He shouts and curses and tears at his unruly white hair. It's his mantra, his prophecy for Italy, and he's been reciting it for months. Party politics is over and Berlusconi is on his last legs, he says. "We will be the third-largest force, we, the Five Star Movement." It isn't a party but an idea -- Italy's new, stronger protest movement.

Beppe Grillo, 63, shouts it from the country's public squares the way dictator Benito Mussolini once did from his balcony in Rome, and until recently hardly anyone took him seriously. His critics call him a demagogue, while his fans see him as someone who clears up abuses. He has been called "Italy's Michael Moore." He calls himself the "Detonator," a demolition expert whose target is the political establishment.

Grillo's prophecies came true in local elections on May 6-7. It was the first test run following former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's departure and Mario Monti's appointment as prime minister six months ago. The results were alarming, with a third of Italy's roughly 10 million eligible voters staying home. The center-left Democratic Party saw their share of the vote drop by up to 20 percent, while Berlusconi's right-wing People of Freedom (PdL) saw their support fall by up to 40 percent. The ousted prime minister wisely monitored the election debacle from a safe distance, in Moscow, where he was attending the inauguration of his friend Vladimir Putin as Russian president.

'Revolution at the Polls'

Italy's frustrated, angry citizens and the victims of the crisis have shifted their allegiances to the Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) and to comedian and blogger Grillo. They support him because he argues for a withdrawal from the euro zone and believes that it is utopian and outrageous to expect the Italians to pay their debts on their own. His movement came from nowhere to notch up double-digit results in the election. In his native city of Genoa, it even became the third-strongest force.

The Italian media called it a "revolution at the polls," although the results were hardly even noticed outside Italy. But the mood in the country resembles the mood throughout Europe. The economic crisis is also influencing elections in Italy, where frustration and fear are not leading to political renewal but to the strengthening of political dilettantes and radicals.

Elections across Europe have been marked by a decline in election turnout, populism and protest votes. It was like that in Greece, where the radical leftists became the second-most powerful force and neo-Nazis captured seats in parliament. In France, the far right led by Marine Le Pen captured almost 18 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. In Germany, the upstart Pirate Party has become a force to be reckoned with, winning seats in a fourth state parliament in Sunday's election in North Rhine-Westphalia. In the Netherlands, the country's austerity program led to the collapse of the center-right coalition government.

Grillo also benefits from fears in the midst of the crisis, as he rages against the government's austerity measures and fuels hatred of the euro. The strategy is working. Only 5 percent of Italians still believe in the established parties, and less than half have faith in Monti's reforms. Instead, they love Grillo, whose movement doesn't want to become a party and which has become a success without media clout and without having a general secretary, a party headquarters or money from Rome. The Five Star Movement is so convincing because of its constantly growing army of supporters, nicknamed the grillini ("little crickets"), who are already changing the country with their grassroots political groups dubbed "Five Star Lists."

The political establishment reacted with shock to the election results, and President Giorgio Napolitano warned against populism. Grillo behaved as he always does -- namely rebelliously and with bad manners -- and wished Napolitano, who is 86, a well-deserved retirement.

Mobilizing Voters with His Blog

Grillo's rise to become Italy's best-known political upstart would have been inconceivable without the Internet. For years, the son of a small business owner has operated the most widely read blog south of the Alps, which receives 300,000 clicks per day. Using his blog, he mobilized hundreds of thousands of Italians against the Turin-Lyon high-speed rail line, which is highly controversial in Italy, and organized protest events like the "Kiss My Ass Day" to protest against members of parliament with criminal records.

Because the TV stations were boycotting the prominent performer, he exchanged his Ferrari for a camping van and used the country's public squares as his stage, where he vituperated against an Italy that, in his words, invented evil banks, the Mafia and fascism -- and not much else.

This may be commedia dell'arte, but it still isn't a political platform. What is Grillo capable of, and why is he succeeding in mobilizing Italians who are so weary of politics? His success was evident in early May in Parma, a city famous for its prosciutto in the northern Italian Emilia-Romagna region. His movement achieved its best result, 19.5 percent, in Parma. A runoff election on Monday will decide whether its candidate will become mayor.

The camper comes to a stop in front of the cathedral. The van is being driven by Grillo's brother-in-law, who has been transporting Grillo from city to city for months while listening to music by the German industrial metal band Rammstein. While on the bus, Grillo types furiously away on his blog and takes short naps, and then jumps onto the street wearing a lumberjack shirt. The voters, mostly young men around 30, angry and Internet-savvy, are waiting for him as if he were their messiah. They ply him with regional delicacies -- cheese and ossobuco -- and carry him to the stage.

Taking a Step Back

What follows is the usual Grillo show: jokes about "psycho-dwarf" Berlusconi, who is having too much sex, and about "Alzheimer Prodi" and "bookkeeper Monti," who aren't having enough. Grillo scores points with demands for a public water supply, car-sharing programs and environmental protection, as well as defining free Internet access as a civil right. Of course, he also calls for Italy's withdrawal from the euro zone. He shouts himself hoarse while his audience hangs on his every word, and yet he does not offer any serious ideas.

The show only becomes powerful when Grillo takes a step back. He insists that he is only lending his face to the movement, and that he has no ambitions for political office.

Now his candidates begin speaking. They are young men and women from Parma, politically inexperienced, neither on the left nor the right, but united in their distrust of conventional politics and their desire for more grassroots democracy and transparency. While Grillo may be a loudmouth, the grillini are quieter and more serious. They want effective local policies that will improve waste disposal and save museums and daycare centers. "Vote for us, because we will achieve, on a small scale, what they can't do in Rome," says one of the candidates.

The grillini stand a decent chance of also getting seats in Rome in next spring's parliamentary election. The citizens' list model is already catching on in cities like Milan and Naples. If Grillo's assessment is correct and Italy's parties are indeed tearing each other apart, independent voter alliances could also work at the national level, alliances led by other political newcomers like Luca di Montezemolo, the former head of Fiat and now the chairman of Ferrari. Or by the man who is still apparently the only one with recipes for sorting out Italy: Mario Monti, the technocrat.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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