Beppe Grillo: The new clown prince of Italy

A funny thing just happened in Italian politics: Beppe Grillo, comedian, troublemaker and arch-enemy of the Establishment, is now seen by half the electorate as a viable candidate for the presidency. Peter Popham reports on a joke that could be getting out of hand

Last week he was just another comedian. This week Beppe Grillo – tousle-haired, beer-bellied, foul-mouthed and 59 – is something else. But what exactly? Is he a new Mussolini in the making, a reckless demagogue who threatens to overturn the established order and replace it with God knows what? The gadfly from the blogosphere spreading wild, anarchic ideas about democracy of the base? Or simply the man who is giving Italy's much abused general public a voice?

All Italy is talking about him. Last night prime minister Romano Prodi told a popular talk show: "You can't run a country as if it was a comedy show... Democracy is operated by political parties." And Italy's most-trusted opinion pollster, Renato Mannheimer, published the stunning news that fully 50 per cent of Italians would either "certainly vote for his [Grillo's] movement" at the next election or "consider voting for it".

It all started on 8 September. For the past four years Mr Grillo has written a blog, beppegrillo.it, Italy's most popular with 200,000 hits per day. On 8 September he led his vast virtual community out into the real world. They celebrated what he called "V-Day": V not for victory but "vaffanculo": an extremely vulgar, though common, expression which corresponds closely to "fuck off". "V-Day" was "Fuck Off Day", those being invited to go forth and multiply being Italy's politicians.

It might have fallen flat on its face, like other efforts to shake the established order in recent years. Some years back the art-house film director Nani Moretti led a movement called the Girotondi to thumb a nose at the left-wing establishment, dancing ring-a-ring-a-rosy around famous Italian piazzas in whimsical protest. But the media grew bored with it and the movement quietly disappeared. No-one doubts the degree of political disenchantment in Italy: Mr Prodi's government has the support of barely a quarter of Italians, and the slenderest majority in the Senate. Yet somehow the protests seem to fizzle almost before they start.

Not Beppe's, though. F-Off Day seemed ambitious for a movement confined to the blogosphere. The comedian called for one big rally in Bologna, home of Mr Prodi, and 250 in other cities around the country (and 30 abroad). But he knew what he was doing. Fifty thousand assembled in Bologna. Hundreds of thousands more gathered around the country. The idea was to collect signatures to demand a drastic new law banning convicted criminals from Parliament – Mr Grillo says there are 23 MPs and Senators with criminal convictions confirmed by the highest court in the land – and to limit politicians to serving no more than two terms in parliament. At rallies from the far north to Sicily, more than 300,000 signatures were collected.

Contemporary Italy has produced a succession of superb satirists who tangle with the sensibilities of the rich and powerful: Dario Fo, awarded the Nobel prize for literature for Accidental Death of an Anarchist, is over 80 and still provocative; Roberto Benigni, Oscar-winning star of Life is Beautiful was far more robust (and funny) when teasing Silvio Berlusconi; Sabina Guzzanti, whose cruel impersonations of the man they call "psiconano" ("the psychotic dwarf") led to her show being axed by RAI after a single episode.

But Mr Grillo has paid his dues longer than anyone else, and for many years has mined material from the rich seams of abuse and corruption in Italian public life. His live shows have long involved political tub-thumping. He trained as an accountant before becoming a comic. A barbed joke against the Socialist leader Bettino Craxi (later convicted in absentia of corruption) led to him being banned from television in 1986. His appearances on the small screen since have been rare, but he has built a huge following with stage shows; and indignation against the corruption and hypocrisy of Italian politics and business have been at the heart of his act for two decades.

Mr Grillo's material seemed to take on a prophetic character when he became the only Italian public figure to predict the downfall of Parmalat, the dairy giant based in the city of Parma. In 2002, long before the firm appeared to be in trouble, he made gags about its accounting and manufacturing practices. The following year it nearly collapsed with an €8bn hole in its accounts.

This was Mr Grillo's role in Italian life: the clever, raucous, tub-thumping gadfly. But in the past week all that has changed. The turnout for "V-Day" stunned the political establishment, and in the days that followed he maintained the initiative. Big gun columnists were rolled out to rubbish the man, to condemn him as a dangerous demagogue, a Mussolini in the making – but every roar of the canon only amplified his importance.

Having proved that he was, as claimed, the voice of a broad mass of disaffected Italians, what would he do next?

The first answer came on Saturday when he showed up at the Festa dell'Unita, the great annual jamboree, first of the Communists, now of the post-Communists, and received a loud ovation from the crowd, despite the fact that prominent among the people he was mocking and scorning were their highest leaders. Mr Grillo was in no mood to soften his message or tender olive branches. The "up yours" tone continued unabated.

Then on Sunday he went a step further, announcing that his blog would give its backing to independent candidates for local elections who fulfill the criteria of openness and who remain seperate from the established parties. "Candidates who adhere to the requirements will receive a certificate of transparency from beppegrillo.it" he wrote on the blog yesterday.

Italy is still digesting the significance of this announcement. In a little over a week Beppe Grillo has gone from being a satirical comedian, to a putative leader, to the actual leader of a de facto group of candidates, whom he will vet before endorsing.

So much flim-flam, you might think, so much self-dramatising nonsense in a country which specialises in it. But as Italy's serious newspapers have been forced to admit in the past week, Grillo is not so easily dismissed. Particularly given Italy's present political circumstances.

Fifteen years ago a revolution began in Italy after the exposure, by prosecutors in Milan, of vast and systematic bribery within the biggest political parties. The Christian Democratic party, dominant throughout the post-war years, collapsed and dissolved, as did the Socialists. The whole system that had kept Italy rolling along through the post-war boom years and beyond was finished. The First Republic was dead, long live the Second.

But the Second Republic was never properly born. Instead a billionaire crooner-turned property dealer turned media magnate called Silvio Berlusconi created a party called Forza Italia overnight, and swept all before him. In no time he was prime minister. He didn't last long the first time and soon the centre-left was back in power – but with all reforming zeal gone. They were out to survive, to get by, no more. Ten years later the great reforms demanded during the Tangentopoli years – reforms to the atrociously slow and distorted justice system, to media ownership rules, to the electoral system – remain unaccomplished.

The political parties are fragile, fissiparous, constantly in flux; at the same time the political establishment is a closed, highly privileged entity, as dissected in La Casta (The Caste), a huge bestseller which exposes the corruption and nepotism at its heart.

No-one doubts that Mr Grillo is moving into politics. "Certainly Italy needs a revolution," he said yesterday. "There is a democratic vacuum which we filled from the web. We've released a virus, and there is no vaccine against it. For 50 years Italy has been dominated by politicians whose interests are in conflict, always the same people...

"I myself was taken surprise by the size of the response to my call for V-Day. But this is not a demonstration of anger: it's a pure breath of air. There were no banners at the demonstrations, no violent incidents, a mood of good cheer. Italians were standing in line to sign our petition – smiling and standing in line. Have you ever seen Italians doing that?"

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