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Italy: Comedian and politics

By Tom Gill
February 28 2013




Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement is now Italy’s largest party, only overtaken in terms of seats in parliament by the alliances formed by the main, established parties – Pier Luigi Bersani’s Democrats and Silvio Berlusconi’s PDL party.

So how did Grillo, a former comedian and Italy’s number 1 blogger, come from nothing – no power locally nor nationally two years ago – to win in elections 24-25 February over 100 seats in Italy’s lower house?

Here’s the answer in five points

He’s built a massive following on the web, with his blog taking the number one spot in the country and about 1 million followers on Facebook and Twitter. This hegemony in social media, one that mirror’s Berlusconi’s rise using TV 20 years ago, has allowed him to send out his message unmediated and without real challenge (the fear of which may be in part behind his shunning of Italy’s traditional mass media). It’s also allowed him to reach younger voters, and the previously politically unengaged (one survey found half of his supporters didn’t identify with any political party).

2 His genius at attracting and entertaining large crowds, with half a million turning up to a rally in Rome days before the vote. This originates from his previous career as a touring stand up act, which he’s successfully applied to his political campaigning. Grillo has also shown himself a spectacular self-publicist, swimming across the Strait of Medina ahead of a stunning victory in Sicily in autumn 2012. In short, applying that mix virtual with real world campaigning that has overturn regimes in the Arab world

3 Grillo has gained popularity by attacking the throughly corrupt political class, now never more sleaze-ridden after 20 years of Berlusconi and the Bribesville scandals that precipitated the media magnate to enter politics. Seen as a complete outsider, Grillo fielded against the usual crop of ageing career politicians an army of complete unknowns – twenty- something housewives, students, graphic designers, IT engineers and jobless factory workers. Furthermore, in a country where political instability means parties habitually resort to backroom coalition deals, jettisoning campaign pledges in the process. Grillo’s refusal to play this game has given him an air of honesty and transparency badly lacking among his rivals.

4 Amid a string of largely forgettable Left leaders that have come and gone, politics has never been more personalised. Many find Grillo’s style aggressive, sometimes offensive, but his darkly comic personalized attacks – the best of which has to be to dismiss the former PM as Rigor Montis – get him headlines.

5. If Grillo owes at least some of his strident rhetorical style to the populist right, he stole much of his political clothes from the Left, just as the latter abandoned them to raid Mario Monti’s neo liberal wardrobe. Centre-left Democrat leader Bersani’s key campaign pledge was to stick to the former ‘technocrat’ premier’s EU-backed austerity and ‘reform’ programme.

Grillo was able to pose as the champion of the little man, and, since the onset of the Eurozone crisis, Italy’s much crushed sense of national pride. Among manifesto pledges were promises to revisit all international treaties including NATO membership and the most notably the Euro, with a referendum; a ‘citizen’s wage’ for the unemployed; support for small and medium sized businesses and a strengthened say for small shareholders; a ban on share options and a cap on executive salaries; and reversing cuts to health and education.

What now?

The ‘markets’ are all jittery about renewed political instability in Italy. Bersani’s centre-left coalition, while enjoying a majority in the House, has not won control of the Senate, and cannot do so even with the support of Monti.

So there’s pressure from some quarters internationally for a grand coalition between Bersani and Berlusconi to continue the same policies that since the 2008 crisis have caused a downward spiral of economic decline, rising unemployment and plummeting living standards, even if (under Monti) they tempered the dreaded ‘spreads’ have eased. And it would be an inherently unstable.

Fortunately it seems Bersani is instead looking to some kind of rapprochement with Grillo. There’s more in a deal with Grillo for the Democrats than for the Five Star Movement. Without one elections will likely be coming round again soon and this time it could be the comedian-blogger’s movement that is projected into government.

Tom Gill is a London-based writer who blogs at on European affairs from a radical left perspective.

 Originally Published by Liberal Conspiracy 
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