Beppe Grillo shaking up Italian politics

2012-10-30 19:50
Italian showman Beppe Grillo waves to supporters during an election rally in Piazza Magione. (Marcello Paternostro, AFP)

Italian showman Beppe Grillo waves to supporters during an election rally in Piazza Magione. (Marcello Paternostro, AFP)

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Rome - Comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo is the man of the moment in Italy after his internet-based movement made big gains in an election in Sicily with a blend of populism and anti-corruption initiatives.

A candidate from Grillo's "Five Star Movement" came third in the race for the regional governor's post in the southern Italian island, and the group won the highest number of votes for any single party, astounding its rivals.

Bushy-haired 63-year-old Grillo drew large crowds during a 20-day campaign in which he toured Sicily, drumming up support from young people sick of traditional parties, as well as swimming across the Strait of Messina in a campaign stunt.

Celebrating a "stellar boom" for the movement, the excitable orator is already looking ahead to the general election scheduled for April 2013.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to face something extraordinary. Elections in parliament, with such a movement... nothing this exceptional has ever been done," he told his supporters in a message posted on his blog.

Grillo, who uses mainly social media networks and rarely gives interviews to Italian journalists - accusing them of being members of the same corrupt elite as politicians - wants to encourage more young people to get involved in politics.

His blog is the most widely read in Italy and he counts close to a million fans on Facebook and 700 000 followers on Twitter in this country of 60 million people.

Grillo says traditional politics is over and advocates a "participatory democracy" in which ordinary citizens can become local protagonists.

In May, a Five Star Movement candidate won against mainstream parties in a mayoral race in the traditionally centre-right city of Parma, and the group won around eight percent of the vote in towns it contested in the partial elections.


Dozens of mostly young candidates - nicknamed "Grillini" or "Little Crickets" after the politician's name - also won seats on city councils, promising transparency, integrity and environmental initiatives.

In Sicily, candidate Giancarlo Cancelleri - a surveyor who has never held political office - was boosted by protest votes against traditional parties and its promises to tackle privilege in a period of tough financial sacrifices.

Grillo says his initiatives - like massive use of renewable energy - can be funded through cuts in military spending, an end to wasteful public projects and a stop to public subsidies and perks for politicians and the media.

"The list of possible cuts is infinite but [Prime Minister Mario] Monti cannot implement them. The system cannot reform itself," Grillo, who calls Italy's bickering political parties a "cancer of democracy," said earlier.

This type of rhetoric has found wide resonance among ordinary Italians wearied by the antics of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and a series of scandals over political subsidies used to fund lavish lifestyles.

Grillo started out as a stand-up comic and became a showman on Rai public television in the 1970s before being kicked out for making jokes about then prime minister Bettino Craxi, who was subsequently convicted for corruption.

His television success made him a millionaire, which has allowed him to fund his movement mainly out of his own pocket. He returned to television in the 1990s and became well-known for his environmental advocacy work.

His political début came in 2007 when he used internet mobilisation to organise mass demonstrations against Italy's political class entitled "Vaffanculo Day" ("Fuck Off Day") - which attracted hundreds of thousands of people.

His biting tongue and fondness for expletives spare few in Italy's current political spectrum, and he nicknames Monti "Rigor Montis" - a satirical reference to the widely respected prime minister's somewhat sober style.

He dismissed Berlusconi as "ancient history" in an interview with AFP, and some of his most vehement rhetoric is directed against President Giorgio Napolitano, a former Communist Party official whom Grillo calls a "party hack".

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