Italy’s danger man


Comedian Beppe Grillo's populist Five Star Movement shot to prominence criticizing Mario Monti's austerity policies.


Giuseppe Cacace

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Debates on Italian television during the campaign for last week's election fell into a familiar pattern.

Two or three male politicians in immaculate suits would answer questions about bond yields or labor market liberalization from similarly attired journalists. If the presenter wasn’t a beautiful woman in a short skirt, there would be one on the panel.

The elections’ big winner approached the campaign differently, however.

Beppe Grillo shunned TV studios. Instead he appealed to Italians through irreverent blog posts, a Twitter tornado and a camper-van tour across the country that filled piazzas with ever-larger rallies.

His final gathering in Rome attracted 800,000, according to his own figures.

A former comedian who was once one of Italy's best-known TV stars, Grillo works the crowd like a pro.

Dressed in a faded grey T-shirt or plaid work shirt, the stocky political neophyte with a mop of silver hair bellows rage against banks, multinationals and the political caste.

He drops his head melodramatically as he recalls the suffering of the unemployed or bankrupt, then throws out a joke at the expense of a political rival before returning to a blood curdling, clenched-fist harangue against the evils of the establishment.

"Third World War is happening now," he recently posted on his blog, Italy's most-read.

"No one has declared war,” he elaborated. “It is a silent, insidious war. Information is its invincible weapon, for now. The lie, the gratuitous and vindictive attack, the shit machine always ready for use by the servants who are well paid for their enthusiastic prostitution."

Such in-your-face tactics have struck a deep chord among Italians seriously dissatisfied with the entrenched political elite in a country suffering a double-dip recession after more than a decade of economic stagnation.

Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) — founded with an internet announcement in 2009 — won more a quarter of the vote in the Feb. 24-25 election, making it the biggest single party in the lower house of parliament, and giving it enough Senate seats to hamstring the formation of a stable government.

Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani can pull together a center-left coalition with a majority in the lower house despite the swing to the M5S. In the Senate, however, he must strike a deal with Grillo or former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose party came in second overall with 30 percent of the vote.

Various media have dubbed Grillo and Berlusconi — infamous for his sex parties — the two “clowns” of Italian politics.

Grillo has reveled in his kingmaker role, mocking Bersani as the "talking dead" for trying to approach him for a deal, which he’s refused in no uncertain terms.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it won't eventually happen, however. Grillo has hinted his novice lawmakers may vote in favor of policies from a new minority government on a case-by-case basis.

Keen to avoid having to reach out to Berlusconi, Bersani has offered to work with the M5S on some of Grillo's priorities, including cutting the cost of politics, fighting corruption and dismantling vested interests.

"There is a potential silver lining," says Geoff Andrews, politics tutor at Britain's Open University and author of "Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi." "It could have a positive effect certainly in the case of political reforms, getting rid of protected interests and so on."

Italy has long needed a political clean-up. It also needs an urgent economic turnaround. At 127 percent of economic output, its public debt is one of the world's highest, while growth rates have competed with Zimbabwe’s and Haiti’s for the bottom of the global rankings over the past decade.

Financial markets can be expected to push Italy's borrowing costs toward bankruptcy levels unless there is some quick and decisive action. However, the economy does not seem to be Grillo's strong point.

His electoral program includes handing out cash though a state-funded "citizens wage," boosting spending on health and education, offering free internet to all and abolishing a range of unpopular taxes.

He's vague about how to pay for all that. Plans to cut politicians' perks and pulling Italy's 3,000 troops out of Afghanistan are unlikely to put much of a dent in that $2.6 trillion debt. He also wants a referendum on staying in the euro zone, another move that's unlikely to reassure the markets.

The M5S's rise is symptomatic of a dissatisfaction with mainstream politics across much of Europe that has boosted populist parties on the left and right.

Grillo says he's above political classifications and wants to scrap party politics altogether in favor of a "citizens' democracy."

"We want to destroy everything. Not rebuild on the same rubble," he said in a BBC interview Thursday. "It will be a different world, made by citizens, not politicians."

Many of his supporters have come from left-wing anti-globalization movements, but Grillo also went out his way to reach out to disaffected neo-Fascist youths during the campaign.

"If you look at his agenda, you have elements of the extreme left and the populist right," said Mattia Toaldo, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign relations. "It's a weird combination."

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Grillo’s persona is nothing if not contradictory.

Although he rails against privilege, he sold his Ferrari only after it alienated environmentalist supporters. His mass rallies held under the banner "vaffanculo" (f**k you) railed against criminal politicians, but he's barred from office due to a manslaughter conviction from a 1980 car crash that killed his three passengers.

He's a 64-year-old who claims to be leading a youth revolution.

Grillo has also made honesty a buzzword in his campaign, but a fact-checking website inspired by PolitiFact lists him as Italy's biggest political Pinocchio — with a truth rating of just 45 percent, compared to 53 percent for Berlusconi and 72 percent for Bersani.

Nevertheless, Grillo is in a position to wield significant power despite his contradictions.

If he or Berlusconi paralyze Italy's government or block economic reforms, the world's eighth largest economy could run the risk of a Greek-style meltdown that would force the euro zone and the global economy to struggle to survive.