Pointing to the wall-size image of his shouting,
wild-eyed face projected on the RAI1 political talk show Porta a Porta's
backdrop studio screen on May 19, 65-year-old Beppe Grillo -- leader of
the staunchly left-wing, grassroots Five Star Movement (M5S) and longtime
politically engaged comedian -- was in rare form. "If I saw such a guy I'd never
vote for him. It's clear he'd frighten people," he said, to the chuckles of the
Complaining that the media depicts him as a
"terror," and as
"someone who shouts," the portly but dashing Grillo stalked Porta a Porta's stage. Tieless, dressed in
a sports jacket and jeans, he seemed surprisingly calm -- belying his
reputation as an explosive orator prone to hurling invective at his opponents. But
this didn't last long.
For the next 50 minutes, Grillo proceeded to dominate
his interviewer, the staid and besuited Bruno Vespa, Porta a Porta's host. Gesticulating, at times even shouting, he
issued damning indictments of the political situation in Italy, a country suffering
destruction by a "criminal association" of journalists, politicians, and
industrialists whom he likened to a new Mafia. The M5S would defeat them at the
ballot box in elections for the European Parliament on May 25, and not with the
predicted 33 percent of the vote, but with a smashing 96 percent. Their
campaign slogan (and hashtag), he reminded the audience, was: #Vinciamonoi -- We'll
Grillo and his upstart Five Star Movement were at
their peak. An M5S victory at the European Parliamentary elections on May 25
threatened to disrupt Italy's stabilized markets, derail Prime Minister Matteo
Renzi's plans for reform, and even lead to new elections -- a prospect that
could have sparked chaos, both in Italy and across the eurozone.
Grillo, who generally spurns the mass media, was clearly relishing his return to
television; Porta a Porta was his
first live appearance since 1993. A political satirist whose lacerating tongue
got him de facto banned from the public airwaves, he reserved especially
virulent ire for three of the four recent prime ministers. He usually calls
them insulting nicknames of his own concoction -- "l'ebetino di Firenze" ("the feeble-minded
Florentine" for Matteo Renzi, the current head of government); "il psiconano" and "il pregiudicato" ("the psycho-dwarf"
with a criminal record, for 77-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, who resigned
in November 2011); and "Rigor Montis" (for the
Monti, 71, booted from the prime ministership in July 2012).
On Porta a
Porta, Grillo hit his stride. The national debt is soaring, GDP is falling,
foreign investors are buying up the jewels of Italy's patrimony, and politicians
are gorging on a feast of corruption while presiding over the "disfacimento" (decline) of the country, he
compromise or alliance with such "criminals" was possible, thundered Grillo. Soon
the M5S would initiate online mock trials of all of them. In fact, Grillo told the audience, he had arrived with a
plastic-wrapped model castle outfitted with dungeons (tagged with the names of the
soon-to-be "convicted"), but studio security had not let him bring it in.
Perhaps no Italian politician in recent
ever spoken as forcefully or frankly about Italy's predicament.
And few, if any, in recent memory have received such a
thrashing at the polls: Instead of the predicted 33 percent, M5S won only 21
percent -- coming in a full 19 points behind the Partito Democratico and its
head, the "feeble-minded Florentine" Renzi.
The defeat reduced Grillo to an interlude of silence.
His first response came only the next day: a blog entry posting an
Italian translation of Rudyard Kipling's famous poem "If," and the number 5,804,810 -- M5S's vote
count -- followed by GRAZIE.
Grillo's bombast and subsequent rout aside, the economic crisis against
which he rails -- and in which Italy remains mired -- is the worst since World War II. And the anger Italians feel
about it is real
and growing. According to a Pew
Research Center poll, in 2013, only 25 percent of Italians believed
their politicians were doing a good job of handling the crisis -- a drop of 23
points since the previous year. Another study
found that 88 percent of Italians distrust all the country's traditional political
parties. A kick-the-bums-out alternative was bound to emerge, and the Five Star Movement did.
M5S may be the first political entity to have grown
out of a blog -- Grillo's own,
which he began in 2005, and which quickly became immensely popular, valued for its incisive humor and truth-telling. Edited by a ponytailed Internet whiz named
Gianroberto Casaleggio, each entry is concise, jargon-free, and focused on
current affairs. In it, Grillo unabashedly asserts his populist bona fides,
calling the provocative tirades he delivers at his rallies "what everyone is
saying," and advocating "direct democracy" via the Internet. The movement's ascent was just as sudden and dazzling.
2009 as a political party by Grillo (and Casaleggio), M5S polled
at just 2
percent in 2010, but last year took 26 percent of seats
in elections to the Chamber of Deputies and 24 percent in the Senate. Even more surprising was the manner of his
unconventional campaign: His 2013 victory
conventional media, campaigning almost
exclusively via his website, social media, and his own
online television channel.
But what of his
platform? Often accused of having no agenda apart from raising hell,
Grillo directed people to the seven-point
program posted on M5S's website. It begins by declaring the Italian state
to be "bureaucratic, excessively large, costly, and inefficient," that "the
Parliament no longer represents its citizens," and that "the Constitution is no
longer applied." It goes on to present a variety of leftist ideas and
objectives (that drew followers from across Italy's political spectrum),
including nationwide conversion to green energy by 2020, protectionist economic
measures, opposition to military interventions abroad (which Grillo believes
spur illegal immigration to Europe), free Internet for all, and wide-ranging media
reform. The latter point is especially relevant, given Italy's abysmal press
freedom ranking -- 68th in the world, the worst in Western Europe. (This
owes much to Berlusconi's ownership of three national television stations.)
At his rallies,
Grillo raged against high unemployment (12.7
percent in April, and 40 percent among youth alone), EU regulations, and
the single currency, promising a referendum on Italy's departure from the eurozone. Corruption was also a constant refrain. He voiced outrage that "la Salma" ("the Corpse," as he has dubbed Giorgio Napolitano, the
89-year-old, visibly enfeebled head of state) received Berlusconi at his
residence, the Palazzo del Quirinale, even after the latter's definitive
conviction for tax fraud last August, and decried the commutation of his sentence
from four years in prison to four hours of unpaid social work a week. "What
sort of state is this?" Grillo is fond of saying.
But as the European Parliament elections
neared, his already over-the-top rhetoric took outlandish turns.
in his blog, that Italians, since
the end of World War II, had been living in "a permanent state of coup d'etat."
On May 17 at a gathering in Turin, he went further: "We should thank
Stalin. He won the war against the Nazis. If Stalin hadn't won, Martin
Schulz [the German president of the European Parliament] would be wearing a swastika
on his forehead.... Schulz, go fuck yourself!" He wasn't done yet. "They say I'm
Hitler. But I'm not Hitler, I'm beyond
Hitler!" Whatever that meant, he then went on to deride Renzi for "going to
lick [Chancellor Angela] Merkel's big German ass" -- that is, for taking
orders from Berlin concerning the Italian economy. A few days later, at a rally
in Milan, he proclaimed: "Communism is finished because it was poorly carried out. The
only capitalism that works is that of the Chinese, because there are Maoists
pronouncements did little to comfort those worried about just what M5S was all
about, and Grillo soon began taking pains to stress that he advocated nonviolence.
But likening himself to history's most notorious butchers surely proved too
much for some of his followers, to say nothing of undecided voters.
recent electoral loss, Grillo, in any case, is certainly not finished. M5S came
in second on Italy's roster, after all, and retains its position as
power broker in the Italian Parliament. Renzi may have pledged that his tenure as premier will last to
its 2018 term limit, but there is little reason to believe him -- at least if
recent Italian history is any guide: Italy has had three prime ministers in the
last two years, not counting Berlusconi.
dismissal of M5S's eventual leadership question as almost a technicality offers
reason for concern about its long-term survivability. No one
man-movement can last. But Grillo has led M5S
with all the flair and fervor of a taller, shaggier Benito Mussolini -- a comparison he
rejects, naturally, but which is nonetheless inescapable, despite his leftist agenda.
And he's shown intolerance toward dissent, expelling M5S members who object to
his dictatorial style; so far, 19 M5S deputies and senators
have either resigned or been kicked out. Grillo said that he'd quit the M5S
if it lost the May 25 elections, but he's shown no indication to do so.
Despite the recent knocks, MS5 is
the real deal. The arrival of such a powerful grassroots movement signals the end of
Italy's insufferable political stasis and the dawning of a new, unpredictable
era of populism -- which may yet break apart the country's ossified party
system. Change is coming to Italy, and that alone is cause for hope.
In fact, Grillo's already
his feet. In one post-election blog post, he announced
M5S's new hashtag: #Vinciamopoi. We'll win later.
MARCELLO PATERNOSTRO/AFP/Getty Image