From Brussels to Rome, his political opponents dismiss him — at their peril — as a clown, but Beppe Grillo, the Italian comedian-turned-activist movement, is nothing if not a man of his word.
When The Global Mail talked to him for a few hours last May, he told us his grassroots Five Star Movement (M5S), had just had its ‘Stalingrad’ moment, and that ‘Berlin’ was next.
At that stage M5S had just triumphed in Parma, where voters, disgusted by a huge scandal that had almost driven the region into bankruptcy, handed Grillo’s group 60 per cent of their ballots in the run-off for the mayoralty.
As the world is witnessing this week, Grillo’s war analogy was well-chosen; Stalingrad was World War II’s decisive battle, which saw tyranny pushed back all the way to Berlin.
By Berlin, Grillo meant Rome. But now that he’s all but taken the Italian capital — pulling 25 per cent of the vote in this week’s election – could Berlin, which today runs pretty much all matters European via Brussels, be the next to blink?
In Berlin they see the euro rising and falling to the turmoil that Grillo and his political vigilantes have unleashed in the Eurozone’s third-largest economy. And titillated Europeans — anxious and marooned by austerity — would like to know what the nerve he’s touched in Italy means beyond.
The Grillo/5SM victory in last weekend’s Italian elections sends warnings about how politics is transacted everywhere. And it’s not just politicians he’s after, but the whole matey, conflicted, rotten construct that has accumulated around them; which includes the established media, the bureaucracy, the legal system, big business and, because this is Italy, the clerics, too.
Grillo believes the aims of M5S have application beyond Italy’s borders. As he told us, “We have a shared agenda in this project for the world,” he says. “We are like a laboratory for this type of movement.”
5SM electoral bunting was conspicuous by its absence on Italian streets during the national campaign. This deliberate omission by the movement led its antedeluvian rivals to believe M5S was nothing more than background noise; a nonsense factor of little consequence to the election. That’s because all the noise that mattered was being made online — Silvio Berlusconi for one has admitted he doesn’t understand the internet — and the outrage was then transferred straight to the voting booth.
Grillo is on the verge of creating something very interesting. As he made very clear yesterday, he’s not interested in being a kingmaker; rather, he wants a total overhaul of democracy, to bring parliament and legislating directly back to the people, and to deal with matters issue-by-issue rather than by party machinery or bloc.
Grillo knows he risks alienating and losing his somewhat anarchic netizens if M5S does deals. But he also knows there’s another, more moderate push within M5S, which argues that with power in its grasp, now is the time to push the M5S legislative agenda. This division also opens ground for the established parties to exploit.
As a protest movement, M5S is part Occupy, part Pirate Party, and even part Tea Party, and then some. Labelled by the right and the commentariat as the leader of a leftist movement, Grillo has pointedly reserved the most stinging of his criticism for the old Italian left, describing the centre-led Democratic Party leaders as ‘political stalkers’ and ‘dead men talking’, and demanding they resign.
Grillo says M5S is not right, left or centre, or anywhere on the traditional spectrum, it’s primarily about being clean, and then it’s about direct, issue-by-issue consultation with Italians.
Grillo also believes M5S’s emergence on Italy’s political scene, at a time when the country was sliding into a crippling economic funk, has helped checked the rise of extremists such as Greece’s Golden Dawn, and Geert Wilders and imitators in The Netherlands and elsewhere. This is particularly poignant in Italy, the shores of which have proved to be a porous first-entry point for immigrants. Grillo told The Global Mail Europe’s political establishment “should thank us” for providing a valve for Italian frustrations, as unemployment has soared. A succession of political scandals has also helped focus grassroots outrage to him.
Ignored by the traditional media — which suited the net-savvy Grillo’s direct-democracy movement just fine — Grillo’s Parma victory was widely predicted by conventional commentators to have been a one-hit wonder. The consensus was that Parma would be the limit of the three-year-old M5S’s activism.
Then came last weekend’s poll, in which Parma voted for M5S in greater numbers than Italians did nationally. After M5S’s six months in the mayoralty — during which it has begun to restore the fortunes of one of Italy’s richest cities — it had won the trust of the locals, who clearly like what they’ve seen so far.
The movement’s effect has been similar in Sicily, where last October M5S became the island’s single biggest party after regional elections, having been just pipped to the post of actual power by a centre-left coalition. In the regional election, M5S polled 18.2 per cent, but last weekend, after four busy months helping to remake how politics is practiced in Palermo — cutting MPs’ perks for starters — M5S took 34 per cent of Sicilian votes in the national poll.
Because the Italian establishment is so rancid, it’s easy for Grillo to show the upside of change. One example, as he told The Global Mail, is that he wants to abolish Italy’s 110 provinces, to remove a superfluous layer of bloated government and patronage, and save Italians more than €10 billion a year. That would please budget-minded Brussels too.
The provincial posts he would nix have long been cosy little cabals for the established parties; a favour bank for vote-delivering cronies resistant to reform. Now, with M5S’s deputies in parliament pushing reform, woe betide the crippled institutional parties that resist — everyone is trying to chime in with the public mood that M5S has exposed.
Another big M5S idea is to reform Italy’s state pension system. It’s said that one million Italians live directly off the proceeds of politics; that thousands of former bureaucrats and retired politicians receive taxpayer-funded pensions of as much as €20,000 to €30,000 a month.
“Pensions above €3,000 a month should be abolished,” Grillo told The Global Mail. As this former auditor has in many Vaffanculo (‘fuck you’) rallies, told millions of Italians who accusingly raise their middle fingers toward Rome: “It’s time to take this wretched country back.”
The message from these fascinating Italian polls to Italy’s established elite is clear: the jig is up and we’re coming for you. What we’re seeing in Rome is only the beginning.