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Beppe Grillo: the clown prince of Italian politics

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By Mark Corcoran

Updated May 15, 2012 10:24:48

The sovereign debt crisis has propelled Beppe Grillo into Italy's political constellation, and the comedian is giving his rivals a lesson in the power of social media.

Grillo, 63, is the clown prince of Italian politics. The best-known comic in Italy, he has the manic banter of Robin Williams and the populist media savvy of activist filmmaker Michael Moore.

But he has never really been taken seriously by the Italian political establishment or mainstream media - until now.

Grillo's Five Star Movement, which is largely organised through social media, has just scored a series of spectacular victories in Italian local elections.

In Italy, political power is derived through ownership of TV and newspapers. All take an openly partisan stand and in return receive billions of euros in state funding.

Long ignored by traditional media, Grillo took his campaign online, directly to Italy's disenfranchised youth.

"With the net, with this great form of communication, of connecting ... that didn't exist before but now it's there, you can make miracles," he said.

"That's what's happening today in Italy."

It was a first for Italian politics. The online strategy caught the political establishment napping.

The average age of our politicians is 70. They’re planning a future that they’re never going to see.

Beppe Grillo

Time magazine declared his site to be one of the best in the world.

With little mainstream media coverage, Grillo used the web and networking sites to pull huge crowds. He garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures for anti-government petitions.

Grillo's blog is the most widely read in Italy, according to AFP. His Facebook fan page has 831,656 likes and he has 543,000 followers on Twitter.


Grillo launched his provocative V-Day campaign before 80,000 people in Bologna in 2007. The V stands for vaffanculo (f*** off). Hundreds of thousands more gathered in solidarity in city piazzas around the country for a live link-up.

V-Day then moved to Turin in 2008, with another 60,000 packing historic San Carlo Square.

"Vaffanculo!" he said after taking to the stage with rock-star swagger.

"Vaffanculo!" the crowd roared in response - a group therapy session releasing the tension and anger over the failure of Italian politics.

For five hours, Grillo and his support team captivated and cajoled the crowd and they became mesmerised by a mix of animated oratory and ear-bleedingly loud rap music.

Grillo accused the Italian media of complicity in supporting a failed political and economic system.

"Enough! These politicians must go, and so must the current crop of journalists and publishers we've got in Italy," he said.

"They must all go home. We start again from the bottom."

Picking up steam

For a powerful media proprietor, then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was remarkably slow in attempting to counter this tech-savvy network.

In Italy all journalists have to be licensed by the state, a process that can take years.

In a bid to muzzle Grillo, Mr Berlusconi's political allies lobbied for bloggers to be licensed as journalists.

The campaign failed when Grillo and his supporters announced they would simply move their blogs offshore.

"They've been caught on the hop, they can't even open a laptop. Their average age is 70, the average age of our politicians is 70," Grillo said.

"They're planning a future that they're never going to see."

Grillo's legion of critics pointed out that while he excelled at rallies, cyber campaigning and crucifying politicians with satire, he offered no real solutions to Italy's political and economic problems.

He grudgingly admitted they had a point. In 2009 Grillo launched Five Star, formalising and organising his ad-hoc online support.

He said it was the "next logical step" but also claimed he was just a figurehead of the party.

Beyond vetting the candidates selected at Meet Ups (the only disqualifiers are a criminal record or affiliation with another political party), Grillo claimed to "take a back seat and never dictate policy".

"Five-Star is a grassroots party funded by, and represented by, independent local candidates."

He boasted that his online page was the sixth most popular blog in the world, with 6.5 million unique users a month.

At its first political hurdle in 2010, Five Star stumbled, winning just 1.8 per cent of the vote.

But the movement would quickly gather momentum; the sovereign debt crisis propelled Grillo and Five Star into Italy's political constellation.

Up close and personal

Beppe Grillo bills himself as the anti-politician

I first encountered political iconoclast Beppe Grillo on assignment for Foreign Correspondent a few years back, writes Mark Corcoran.

In the northern city of Turin, I watched as Grillo strode out, with rock-star swagger, to address a crowd of 60,000.

But at home, the high-energy, manic performer is remarkably zen. The profane bombast is replaced with gentle courtesy.

Like many successful comedians, Grillo also grapples with the demons of the past. Meet the man behind one of Italy's fastest growing movements.

Moment in the spotlight

Mr Berlusconi's coalition collapsed last year and Mario Monte assumed power, his unelected technocrat government vowing to save Italy from a euro meltdown.

But pension cuts, increased taxes and other austerity measures designed to head off a Greek-style economic disaster proved unpopular with voters.

A master at whipping up popular sentiment, and with brilliant comic timing, Grillo's moment had arrived.

Billing himself as the anti-politician, Grillo campaigned hard against political corruption and incompetence. He also tapped into seething resentment over Mr Monti's economic austerity measures by calling for Italy to abandon the euro.

Five Star is the latest political group to exploit Europe-wide anger over austerity measures intended to fix the eurozone sovereign debt crisis.

Extreme right groups and other parties campaigning against the euro and bailout packages also made big gains in France and Greece.

Grillo told Bloomberg the euro was an "ever-tightening noose".

"And there's not even the comfort of making sacrifices to see some kind of recovery - there's no sign of economic recovery at all," he said.

"This isn't just an Italian phenomenon; think of the almost 20 per cent gained by Marine Le Pen in France, or the success of both far-left and far-right parties in Greece."

This mainstream political train wreck has been a long time coming.

About 20 per cent of Italians were eligible to vote in more than 900 towns and cities across Italy in the first significant election since Mr Monti took office in November.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the three largest political parties combined won just 37 per cent of the votes, down from 72 per cent in 2010.

Mr Berlusconi's PDL party lost heavily as voters joined a wave of anti-austerity anger and punished incumbent parties.

In the northern city of Parma, Grillo's movement received 21 per cent of the vote, while in Genoa it won 15 per cent.

"Let's face the issue, it can't be a taboo," Grillo told Bloomberg on Thursday, after his movement emerged as the third-biggest party in local elections.

"As debt rises, spending isn't under control, businesses close down, labour cost is up, salaries are down and we don't even have the power of bargaining our debt."

Mainstream hits back

In recent weeks, with the Grillo juggernaut rolling towards them, Italy's mainstream politicians finally went on the attack.

Centre-right ex-foreign minister Franco Frattini told Reuters that Grillo was "populist, extremist and very dangerous".

Nichi Vendola, leader of the Left and Freedom party, dismissed Grillo's movement as "a mix of extreme right and extreme left policies which make it a disturbing phenomenon".

But these outbursts were little more than political speed bumps over which the Grillo roadshow rolled.

"Grillo has confirmed his political existence. He's the big winner," said Maurizio Pessato, vice-president of polling company SWG.

"The weakness of the PDL was confirmed, and perhaps it's the biggest loser of this vote."

However leading political analyst Beppe Severgnini does not see the comedian running for the top jobs.

He says Five Star remains a movement, not a party, with no formal structure or officials.

"Grillo has not changed. When he has to field real questions, he stumbles," he said.

Grillo himself has always been vague about his ultimate intentions.

"This politics isn't my life. I practise politics every day anyway, but getting into politics isn't my job," he said.

"I'm not a danger, I don't want to be president of Italy or prime minister. I'm a comedian."

He has yet to reveal how the last act of his performance will play out, but he has already shown a younger generation of Italians how to exploit the political possibilities of the net.

And that, in the eyes of the old guard, may be his biggest crime.

Topics: world-politics, social-media, italy

First posted May 14, 2012 08:00:33

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