No laughing matter: How a comedian's election is upending Italy

The Five Star Movement's strong showing in Italy's elections has made comedian-turned-activist Beppe Grillo into a kingmaker. But many in Europe worry the last laugh will be on Italy.

Andrew Medichini/AP
Italian comic-turned-political agitator Beppe Grillo, leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, delivers his speech during a final rally in Rome last Friday. Mr. Grillo's party exceeded all expectations in Italy's national elections to become the largest single party in parliament.

Italian politics has long been the butt of jokes, with its revolving-door governments and larger-than-life personalities like the scandal-prone Silvio Berlusconi.

But few people could have predicted that Italians would invest the future of the nation in the hands of an actual comedian.

That dubious privilege has now befallen Beppe Grillo, the bearded, populist leader of the Five Star Movement, which stunned Italians and the rest of the world with a resounding success in elections this week.

Grillo was a highly successful stand-up comic before he decided to found his anti-establishment, Internet-based movement in 2009. In the space of just three years, it has come from nowhere to storm the barricades of the Italian political scene, now placing him in the role of kingmaker as Italy faces legislative paralysis.

During the election campaign, he tirelessly traveled the length and breadth of Italy in what he dubbed a “Tsunami Tour,” filling piazzas with cheering supporters as he railed against entrenched political and business castes.

With his hyperactivity, opportunism, and on-stage energy, it is perhaps no coincidence that his surname means “cricket” or “grasshopper” in Italian.

Kingmaker or kingbreaker?

Final counting from the election showed that Pier Luigi Bersani's center-left Democratic Party won a plurality in the lower house of parliament and also in the upper house, the Senate. But the number of seats the party won in the Senate – 123 compared to Mr Berlusconi’s 117 – was nowhere near an absolute majority of 158, which is required in the Senate in order to have a clear mandate. So neither of the traditional parties has the ability to form a strong government.

All eyes are now on Grillo and his “Grillini,” as his legions of supporters are known, in the expectation that he may be tempted to do a deal with one of the big parties and break the impasse.

But the mercurial stage performer scotched those expectations on Tuesday when he specifically ruled out making an accord with either side, dismissing the main political players as discredited has-beens who are headed for extinction.

Instead, the movement, known by its Italian acronyms as M5S, will consider parliamentary legislation, including austerity measures and economic reforms, on a case-by-case basis, threatening political confusion for months, even years, to come.

"The M5S is not allying with anyone, as it has always said," Grillo said in a blog post on his hugely popular website.

He elaborated further when he spoke to journalists outside his home in Genoa, in the northwestern region of Liguria. "We're not against the world. We'll see reform by reform, law by law. If there are proposals that are compatible with our program, we will evaluate them. Now is not the time to be talking about alliances.”

He said the traditional parties had failed the Italian people and would eventually be wiped out: "They've failed, both left and right. They've been there for 25 years and they've led the country into this catastrophe. Italy's problem is these people. They won't last long."

He also said his parliamentary cohorts would actively “block" any attempt by the center-left and center-right to form a grand coalition, after Berlusconi invited the Democratic Party to enter into just such an arrangement.

He went on to suggest appointing Dario Fo, the 86-year-old Nobel Prize-winning playwright, as Italy’s next president, when the incumbent Giorgio Napolitano steps down in May.

Youth 'Movement'

The Five Star Movement obtained more than a quarter of the national vote in the election, becoming the country’s single biggest party. That means it can send more than 160 “Grillini” into the two houses of parliament – 108 to the lower Chamber of Deputies and 54 to the Senate.

The new parliamentarians come from all walks of life and include students, unemployed factory workers, housewives, and graphic designers.

Many are in their twenties – less than a third the age of Berlusconi and the many other septuagenarians in the Italian political establishment.

“They are an army of unknowns who have never been in politics before,” says Fabrizio Rondolino, a political commentator and former director of communications for Massimo D’Alema, a center-left prime minister in the late '90s.

“The people have chosen us because we are the people,” Alfono Bonafede, a lawyer and a member of the movement in Tuscany, told La Stampa newspaper on Tuesday. “We are the people’s spokesmen. Don’t call us honorable members of parliament – call us citizens.”

Roberta Lombardi, a housewife who has a 13-month-old baby, was excited but intimidated by the prospect of being made an MP.

“I certainly feel a huge weight of responsibility. We’re not the saviors of the country. But we are prepared to revitalize the political scene,” she said.

Fresh blood or political disaster?

But their agenda remains unclear.

During the election campaign, the 64-year-old comic proposed tax cuts, a big increase in health spending, and investment in the “green economy” – without explaining how debt-laden Italy would pay for any of these measures.

To the horror of international financial markets and the chancelleries of Europe, he has also suggested a referendum to pull Italy out of the euro zone, the cancellation of Italy’s 2 trillion euro national debt, and a 20-hour working week.

Italians are divided as to whether the movement promises fresh blood for an anemic, corrupt system – or political and economic disaster for a country already mired in recession.

“Beppe Grillo is a pistol pointed against Italy’s head,” was the front cover headline in this week’s Panorama, a right-leaning news magazine.

Grillo has managed to tap into a chronic generational divide in Italy, in which older, mostly male employees enjoy cast-iron rights and generous pensions, while young people, women, and immigrants scrabble for precarious, short-term jobs.

"Young generations are suffering the burden of a present with no future and we can't imagine they will continue doing that for long," he said.

His success has ramifications for the rest of Europe, analysts say.

“Many of the concerns of Grillo’s supporters are shared by people across Europe, and are reflected in declining trust in political institutions, falling political party membership, and ever-lower voter turnout,” says Jamie Bartlett, the co-author of a report on the movement for Demos, a British think tank. “This combination of anti-establishment rhetoric and new forms of communication could be a model replicated across the Continent.”

A typical Grillo supporter has rock-bottom faith in Italy’s political institutions, mainstream parties, banks, and big companies, especially in the wake of a series of multibillion euro corporate scandals which have hit the country in the last few weeks.

“He, and the social media politics he has pioneered, can no longer be dismissed by his detractors as gimmickry,” Bartlett says.

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