Beppe Grillo: Bolshy, Funny & Italy's New Number One Politician

A comedian and blogger with an interest in human rights and a criminal record. Only in Italy...
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A comedian and blogger with an interest in human rights and a criminal record. Only in Italy...

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Right now I'm watching Beppe Grillo, leader of the Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement), being harangued by anxious, confused journalists outside his home in the region of Liguria, where he was born 64 years ago. He woke up this morning leader of the country's largest political party, an incredible feat for a loose group of activists which came together three and a half years ago around his blog and campaigned almost exclusively online. The results, which give his party around a quarter of the national vote in both the lower and upper houses and have seen technocrat Mario Monti waddle to eight percent, mean that they could be kingmakers – the power to name a government and make demands of it. Strangely for an Italian politician he has no apparent interest in doing so.

'We're not going to make any alliances with anyone,' he keeps saying. 'They're finished, all of them, and they haven't understood that yet.

The journalists get closer: But what about the country? If it remains like this it's ungovernable! They appear to have the fear of God in their eyes, as he speaks in what appears to be another language, responding to questions they haven't asked.

'We're talking about a new way of thinking, a new era, a new way of organising our economy. The old ways are done, finished, the lot of them.'

Grillo is the face of his party, but won't represent it in parliament, due to a party rule that says anyone accused officially of a crime can't. And given that in the early 80s he was on trial for manslaughter (a car accident in which two of his friends and their son died), that means he acts as a sort of figurehead, under whose umbrella activists agitate for structural change to the country's legal, political and economic processes, attacking in particular the endemic corruption among the political class.

Grillo has been compared to Silvio Berlusconi, on the basis of his bolshy style, and the fact that he is, in effect, the party. It is true that without him there would be no M5S, and that he is a loud mouth populist; however to compared him with self-centred, slimy political operator like Berlusconi is not only unfair, it misses what has brought Grillo and the M5S to prominence. It is fear and desperation at a country slowing slipping down the tubes, where talented young people look to leave as soon as they get their degrees, and where under Monti around 1,000 businesses closed every single day. Low wages, high taxes, a crumbling infrastructure in the north and a non-existent one in the south. It is the loathing of a gerontocracy which leaves no space for the young, unless of course you know someone. Above all the M5S isn't about the needs and wants of one man like the PDL (yet, at least) – it is above all a collective effort, working together to help workers and small businesses, and it is anti-bank.

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As pointed out by John Hooper in the Guardian, Grillo is a great showman, a very funny man, and nobody's mug. Hisfoul-mouthed deliveryat the M5S's barnstorming political rallies reminds me of Billy Connolly at his height, with the added quality of a keen satirical eye. He predicted the collapse of Parmalat a full year before it happened, and has been hammering the centre left Partito Democratico (Democratic Party) over alleged corruption at Monte Paschi di Siena, the world's oldest bank which has been teetering on the edge of collapse for months and which has close ties to the PD hierarchy.

As yet he appears to be sticking to guns, and refusing to form a coalition with either the PD or PDL, who he considers the same thing, part of the problem, old world anachronisms. And really, if the party is to survive, it has to maintain that position – its reputation relies on it. But this throws up some problems for the country: by refusing to form a government with anyone, Grillo has effectively taken a quarter of the vote out of the question. The PD, who through their coalition have 340 parliamentary seats (out of 630) and 120 (322) in the Senate, now can't count on Monti to make a working majority in both houses. All the other independent parties are dead and buried, and Grillo is refusing to work with either of the major coalitions. Which leaves the bizarre prospect of supposed mortal enemies PD and PDL working together. There has already been talk of a 'grand coalition' (and of course that shameless huckster Silvio has already hinted that he would take part in such a coalition), but the fact for now is that there is no government. Italy is rudderless. Again.

However, this isn't a victory for Berlusconi, as much as he and his Popolo Della Libertà party and some media outlets in the UK would like to paint it that way (grabbing those all-important hits in the process). While the centre-right coalition the PDL leads took 29 percent of the vote, the party itself took 21.56, with other right wing parties like the secessionist Lega Nord (Northern League), which has an agenda and committed supporters that are quite separate and often even hostile to Silvio, grabbing the rest. He's done brilliantly well to close the gap so convincingly on an appallingly complacent centre-left, which continuously underrated the threat posed both by Berlusconi and M5S, but he hasn't won this election, or anything like it. His coalition has 124 seats in the Parliament and 117 in the Senate, a huge drop on 2008 (340 and 168 – clear majorities).

If you had said to me yesterday that a fifth of the Italian electorate was venal, selfish, misogynist, racist and easily fooled, I'd have said you were mad – it's much more than that.

So there is some hope yet.