A friend of mine, the proud owner of three fancy restaurants in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, has no doubt about which way he's going to vote in the upcoming elections. "Voto Grillo," he tells me. "I'll vote for Grillo." My cousin, a highbrow math teacher, will also vote for Grillo. "Basta ladri," he tells me. "I'm fed up with thieves." Ride a bus, catch a plane, or join a line at a soccer stadium anywhere in Italy these days, and you're likely to hear someone call out, "I'm for Grillo." In the general election ballot now scheduled for February, following the surprising call by Prime Minister Mario Monti that he will step down, at least 20 percent of voters are expected to cast their ballot for Beppe Grillo, making this former television comedian one of Italy's next kingmakers.
So who is this guy? Savior of the country or hapless populist? Robin Hood-cum-Garibaldi or cult leader? And just how did this tubby, gray-bearded ranter burst onto Italy's political scene?
In the 1970s and 1980s, Grillo rose to fame as a comedian on Italy's main TV networks, best known for hosting the show Festival di Sanremo -- a popular musical contest that was something of a grandfather of modern hits like The X Factor and The Voice. His off-color gags and rants against Bettino Craxi, then the country's prime minister, delighted audiences and critics. After accusing Rai (the public television network) of censoring his scripts, he quit and took his act to theaters and rallies and eventually attached himself to a variety of political causes. He has also gone digital with a blog that is consistently ranked among the 10 most popular in the world. In 2008, frustrated in his efforts to promote direct democracy, Grillo joined forces with Gianroberto Casaleggio, a businessman and new-media guru, to launch his own political party, 5 Stelle, or 5 Star, representing the movement's main five issues: "clean water supply, public transportation, development, broadband digital network access, and the environment." Grillo's knack for channeling the political zeitgeist and Casaleggio's mastery of modern data-driven campaign techniques were a perfect match, and a powerful couple was born.
Discounted at first by experts, 5 Star scored a big win in Sicily's local elections this October, coming out of nowhere. Nationwide polls now show it as the country's second-largest party, behind the ruling Democratic Party (PD). The liberal-leftist PD is now predicted to score 30 percent in the national elections, scheduled for February following last week's dramatic resignation of Prime Minister Monti. This may grant the party a majority in Parliament. The conservative Party of Liberty (PDL), led by the returning Silvio Berlusconi, likely won't garner more than 15 percent; smaller centrist parties could muster about 8 percent. This would leave Grillo and Casaleggio, the comedian and the low-key media geek, controlling somewhere between 100 and 120 congressmen out of a total 630. And thanks to a shoddy electoral law, concocted in 2005 by Berlusconi's cronies, Grillo and Casaleggio will be able to personally select the new representatives.
All of a sudden, Grillo and Casaleggio are political power brokers and media stars. Established columnists have started paying homage in their normally staid op eds. Intellectuals have flocked to gather under the 5 Star flag. Traditional newspapers and websites now host Grillo's blog, which has become the most popular in the country. International correspondents -- fed up with covering corruption, economic malaise, and bunga bunga -- swoon celebrating "Beppe." A 2008 profile in the New Yorker set the tone, praising the "distinctly Italian combination of Michael Moore and Stephen Colbert … [who] not only denounces political wrongdoing but runs something of a parallel government, complete with a cabinet of volunteer policy advisers, including the architect Renzo Piano, the actor and playwright Dario Fo, and the economist Joseph Stiglitz, who wrote the preface to a book Grillo recently published online about Italian labor law." The article's author, Tom Mueller, seemed positively enraptured as Grillo "picked up a guitar and sang, in a sultry Ray Charles baritone, a song he called 'The Sardinia Blues.'"
And now, even U.S. President Barack Obama's political heavyweights are getting on the bandwagon. When Michael Slaby, chief integration and innovation officer for the Obama campaign, toured Italy after this year's U.S. election, the only politician he met with personally was Casaleggio. After the meeting, Slaby, unsurprisingly, denied that it implied Obama was endorsing Grillo. "I was traveling as a private citizen," he said. But it's telling that he was even asked.
It's now conventional wisdom in the Italian media these days that come the Ides of March, Beppe Grillo will be a fixture in the Eternal City. But there's a populist dark side to Grillo's rising star.
Establishment political commentators are often shocked by the glowing public response to Grillo's most outrageous remarks. He has called for "public trials" for "guilty politicians" -- not in front of established judges under the law but in public squares. He has advocated arresting 10,000 politicians and corralling them in a soccer stadium until they repay "the booty they have looted from us taxpayers." He warned dissidents in his own party that if they don't like him or Casaleggio, they can get lost. He recently enforced this diktat against Federica Salsi, a councilwoman in Bologna, and Giovanni Favia, a state congressman in Emilia, who had complained about lack of political debate inside 5 Star. On Dec. 12, Grillo expelled them from the party with just a few lines on his blog: "Starting today you cannot use our logo anymore. Good luck."
"Grillo is a new Mussolini, a new Berlusconi," was one of the online reactions, but the leader did not flinch.