How the internet (and other factors) propelled a comedian to the front of Italian politics


3:47 pm - February 27th 2013

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by Tom Gill

Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement is now Italy’s largest party, only overtaken in terms of seats in parliament by the alliances formed by the main, established parties – Pier Luigi Bersani’s Democrats and Silvio Berlusconi’s PDL party.

So how did Grillo, a former comedian and Italy’s number 1 blogger, come from nothing – no power locally nor nationally two years ago – to win in elections 24-25 February over 100 seats in Italy’s lower house?

Here’s the answer in five points

1 He’s built a massive following on the web, with his blog taking the number one spot in the country and about 1 million followers on Facebook and Twitter. This hegemony in social media, one that mirror’s Berlusconi’s rise using TV 20 years ago, has allowed him to send out his message unmediated and without real challenge (the fear of which may be in part behind his shunning of Italy’s traditional mass media). It’s also allowed him to reach younger voters, and the previously politically unengaged (one survey found half of his supporters didn’t identify with any political party).

2 His genius at attracting and entertaining large crowds, with half a million turning up to a rally in Rome days before the vote. This originates from his previous career as a touring stand up act, which he’s successfully applied to his political campaigning. Grillo has also shown himself a spectacular self-publicist, swimming across the Strait of Medina ahead of a stunning victory in Sicily in autumn 2012. In short, applying that mix virtual with real world campaigning that has overturn regimes in the Arab world

3 Grillo has gained popularity by attacking the throughly corrupt political class, now never more sleaze-ridden after 20 years of Berlusconi and the Bribesville scandals that precipitated the media magnate to enter politics. Seen as a complete outsider, Grillo fielded against the usual crop of ageing career politicians an army of complete unknowns – twenty- something housewives, students, graphic designers, IT engineers and jobless factory workers. Furthermore, in a country where political instability means parties habitually resort to backroom coalition deals, jettisoning campaign pledges in the process. Grillo’s refusal to play this game has given him an air of honesty and transparency badly lacking among his rivals.

4 Amid a string of largely forgettable Left leaders that have come and gone, politics has never been more personalised. Many find Grillo’s style aggressive, sometimes offensive, but his darkly comic personalized attacks – the best of which has to be to dismiss the former PM as Rigor Montis – get him headlines.

5. If Grillo owes at least some of his strident rhetorical style to the populist right, he stole much of his political clothes from the Left, just as the latter abandoned them to raid Mario Monti’s neo liberal wardrobe. Centre-left Democrat leader Bersani’s key campaign pledge was to stick to the former ‘technocrat’ premier’s EU-backed austerity and ‘reform’ programme.

Grillo was able to pose as the champion of the little man, and, since the onset of the Eurozone crisis, Italy’s much crushed sense of national pride. Among manifesto pledges were promises to revisit all international treaties including NATO membership and the most notably the Euro, with a referendum; a ‘citizen’s wage’ for the unemployed; support for small and medium sized businesses and a strengthened say for small shareholders; a ban on share options and a cap on executive salaries; and reversing cuts to health and education.

What now?

The ‘markets’ are all jittery about renewed political instability in Italy. Bersani’s centre-left coalition, while enjoying a majority in the House, has not won control of the Senate, and cannot do so even with the support of Monti.

So there’s pressure from some quarters internationally for a grand coalition between Bersani and Berlusconi to continue the same policies that since the 2008 crisis have caused a downward spiral of economic decline, rising unemployment and plummeting living standards, even if (under Monti) they tempered the dreaded ‘spreads’ have eased. And it would be an inherently unstable.

Fortunately it seems Bersani is instead looking to some kind of rapprochement with Grillo. There’s more in a deal with Grillo for the Democrats than for the Five Star Movement. Without one elections will likely be coming round again soon and this time it could be the comedian-blogger’s movement that is projected into government.


Tom Gill is a London-based writer who blogs at www.revolting-europe.com on European affairs from a radical left perspective.

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Reader comments


Hi – just wanted to point out that Grillo swam the Strait of Messina. Medina is in Saudi Arabia.

On checking the historical narrative, I find that Italy’s national debt to GDP ratio was 123.2 pc before the launch of the Euro in December 1999. This was way over the guideline of a maximum of 60 pc in the Maastricht Treaty so why was Italy allowed to join the Euro? [Data source: FT The Birth of the Euro (Penguin Books 1998)]

From media reports, it was elected politicians who made the decisions on launching the Euro, not EU Commission officials. Try Allan Little on: Europe’s Choice – Deeper, Not Wider
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01bwddj

“Jacques Delors interview: Euro would still be strong if it had been built to my plan” [Telegraph December 2011]

Berlusconi is barrier to decent and stable government in Italy? What’s new?

By overall length of service, Andreotti is the longest serving Italian PM since WW2. Recap this from the Wikipedia entry for him:

” . . Andreotti was investigated for his role in the 1979 murder of Mino Pecorelli, a journalist who had published allegations that Andreotti had links with the Mafia and with the kidnapping of Aldo Moro. A court acquitted him in 1999 after a trial that lasted three years, but he was convicted on appeal in November 2002 and sentenced to twenty-four years’ imprisonment. The eighty-three-year-old Andreotti was immediately released pending an appeal. On October 30, 2003 an appeal court overturned the conviction and acquitted Andreotti of the original murder charge. That same year, the court of Palermo acquitted him of ties to the Mafia, but only on grounds of expiry of statutory terms. The court established that Andreotti had indeed had strong ties to the Mafia until 1980, and had used them to further his political career to such an extent as to be considered part of the Mafia itself. . . ”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giulio_Andreotti

I was pleased to see that Grillo said his group would support policies on a case-by-case basis. It’s exactly what I’d hoped the Lib-Dems would do in 2010. They would have had more influence with a weak government needing to work for support in Parliament, and we would be far less likely to have had the enthusiasms of the posh boys indulged in.

It says something when Italy has more sensible politics than us.

The problem is that Italy’s constitution does not allow for a minotority government so if the M5S will not go into coalition with Bersani’s PD, the PD will not be able to form a government. So they may be forced to govern with Berlusconi’s PDL.

Whatever happens it is likely that Italy will go to the polls again very soon – but they have to rewrite the electoral law first.

Here’s how you gain power and influence guys, look how succesful this guy has been – we should do the same too!! Here’s how we “market” ourselves to voters, we can really win some new markets with this sort of sh1t!

But, he’s not on our side so f*** him!

isn’t that the jist….

7. So Much for Subtlety

5. If Grillo owes at least some of his strident rhetorical style to the populist right, he stole much of his political clothes from the Left …. Grillo was able to pose as the champion of the little man, and, since the onset of the Eurozone crisis, Italy’s much crushed sense of national pride.

It is interesting that LC seems to assume this man is of the Left. Because there have been many similar movements in the past – perhaps the best known of them being Pierre Poujade’s UCDA. In fact he probably resembles nothing so much as the Tea Party.

So how did this come about? Countries built on the French model – run by elites recruited by exams and personal favours, that run corrupt systems that feed of licencing and special favours – often produce this sort of anti-intellectual reaction. It is usually a flash in the pan as the elites reassert their control – given the basically undemocratic nature of the French Administrative State it could hardly do otherwise. But we will see. Perhaps he will push for a more American style grass-roots democracy where even local librarians are elected. But I doubt it.

Agree with SMFS. He’s a Poujadist, through and through.


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