Beppe Grillo isn’t joking anymore. The wrinkled, floppy-haired former comedian addressed thousands of his Italian supporters who braved freezing air in the foothills of the Alps a few days ago. Just as he has done for many months across the country, he poured scorn on his country’s politicians. Against all odds, he has become a political force to be reckoned with.
Grillo himself is somewhat surprised by this success. Just a year and a half ago he and his budding political movement M5S (“5 Star Movement”) languished at just 3 percent in public opinion polls. This weekend, in the last flurry of polling before a nationwide ban takes effect, Grillo shot to 18 percent, where he sits comfortably in third place, ahead of former Prime Minister Mario Monti. Grillo’s movement is sometimes called a product of the net generation, since it arose out of his hugely popular blog and coalesced via the community organization site Meetup.com. Yet older Italians, themselves fed up with establishment politicians, are taking notice: “We are seeing more middle-aged people,” Grillo told the Guardian.
M5S’s current standing in the polls suggests that the party could win 30 seats or more in the senate. As Tim Judah, a columnist for Bloomberg, tells it, “The Grillini want a new, ecologically based politics; a referendum on whether to stay in the euro; the abolition of ‘effective monopolies’ such as the state railway company Trenitalia and Mediaset SpA, Berlusconi’s media empire; more investment in health and agriculture.”
The Grillini are united by their disgust with establishment politicians like “Mediocre” Mario Monti, the dull technocrat widely disliked for his austere policies, and Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi, the wild but popular billionaire sex fiend. As one M5S activist told Bloomberg, Italy’s politicians “have so many privileges and earn large amounts of money. These people sit in parliament for 30 years and do politics until they are 99.” M5S, by contrast, vows that no one will be elected for more than two terms or allowed to remain in office more than ten years. Its regional parliamentarians in Sicily, where it was the most voted party in recent elections, take home only 30 percent of their salaries and entrust the rest to a micro-credit scheme for local small businesses.
Many Italians, even those who don’t support Grillo, are glad he is shaking up Italian politics. As Andrea Sironi, a rector of Bocconi University, told Bloomberg, Grillo’s rise is unsurprising in a climate where corruption and sexual scandal tarnish so many of the country’s top politicians.
Yet Grillo, a comedian who “knows little about economics,” can hardly be the answer for Italy’s floundering economy. And his 1980 manslaughter conviction means he can’t be a candidate for parliament. Still, his meteoric rise and anti-austerity populism threatens to throw both the Italian and wider eurozone economy into further turmoil. As the election looms the tireless Grillo plows on, storming across country on a “Tsunami Tour,” sleeping in a camper van and in front of huge crowds angrily skewering Italy’s politicians on both the right and the left. Without that pressure, says Sironi, “they won’t change.”