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Beppe Grillo and Italy’s Five Star Movement

Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement is now Italy’s largest party, only overtaken in terms of seats in parliament by Pier Luigi Bersani and Silvio Berlusconi by the alliances they have built with smaller parties – SEL and the Northern League respectively. So how did Grillo, a former comedian and Italy’s number 1 blogger, come from nothing – no power locally nor nationally two years ago – to win in elections 24-25 February over 100 seats in Italy’s lower house?

Here’s the answer in five points

1 As has been widely discussed in the press he’s built a massive following on the web, with his blog taking the number one spot in the country and about 1 million followers on Facebook and Twitter. This hegemony in social media, one that mirror’s Berlusconi’s rise using TV 20 years ago, has allowed him to send out his message unmediated and without real challenge (the fear of which may be in part behind his shunning of Italy’s traditional mass media, althoughly admittedly the level of political debate broadcast media in particular produces is lamentable). This medium has also allowed him to reach younger voters, and the previously politically unengaged (one survey, conducted 22 February, found half of his supporters didn’t identify with any political party).

2 His genius at attracting and entertaining large crowds, with half a million turning up to a rally in Rome days before the vote. This originates from his previous career as a touring stand up act, which he’s successfully applied to his political campaigning. Grillo has also shown himself a spectacular self-publicist, swimming across the Strait of Medina ahead of a stunning victory in Sicily in autumn 2012. What he’s doing is to apply best practice in political campaigning – mixing the virtual with real world campaigning, the kind  behind Egypt’s ‘Facebook’ revolution, which relied as much on traditional union organizing and political agitation by the Muslim Brotherhood as social media.

3 Grillo’s seen as a complete outsider, and like Berlusconi has been virulent in attacking the political class rightly seen as corrupt and incompetent. But while he’s always pilloried politicians of all colours – indeed it was central part of his comedy act – the billionaire media magnate has been embedded in the political power structures from the outset, building his media empire with the help of the late embezzling Socialist PM Bettino Craxi, and then directly shaping the political landscape after ‘entering the field’ in 1994. Since which time, despite the Tangentopoli, or Bribesville scandals that precipitated his political career, Italy is as sleaze-ridden as ever. Furthermore, Italy is a country where political instability means parties habitually resort to backroom deals to stitch up, top-down, coalitions, watering down campaign pledges in the process. Grillo’s refusal to do any deals with any party give him an air of honesty and transparency badly lacking among his rivals.

4. His fame or infamy – as Berlusconi’s long record shows, amid a string of largely forgettable Left leaders that have come and gone, politics has never been more personalised, and being loud, insensitive or gaff-prone is no disadvantage. Many find Grillo’s style aggressive, sometimes offensive, but his darkly comic personalized attacks – the best of which has to be to dismiss the former PM as Rigor Montis – get him headlines. It will be interesting in this respect how he maintains his leadership position once his army of unknowns – twenty- something housewives, students, graphic designers, IT engineers and jobless factory workers – take their seats in parliament while he remains outside, excluded by his own rule that no member of the movement with a criminal conviction can hold office (he has a manslaughter conviction from a car accident in the 1980s).

5. If Grillo owes at least some of his strident rhetorical style to the populist right, he stole much of his political clothes from the Left, just as the latter abandoned them to raid Mario Monti’s neo liberal wardrobe. Centre-left Democrat leader Bersani’s key campaign pledge was to stick to the former ‘technocrat’ premier’s EU-backed austerity and ‘reform’ programme, that is, slashing labour costs and rights, and undermining the ‘privileges’ of significant sections of the middle class, for example by liberalizing the ‘closed’ professions, measures that might cut legal fees, drugs or taxi fares in the short term, but may simply see the ‘rent’ they extract transferred to banks, supermarkets and corporations as they expand into these sectors to swell their profits. The centre-Left’s jettisoning of its social democrat identity and embrace of free-wheeling globalisation has, then, opened the field to Grillo to pose as the champion of the little man, and, since the onset of the Eurozone crisis, Italy’s much crushed sense of national pride.

Hence Grillo’s promise to revisit all international treaties including NATO membership, free trade agreements and the most notably the Euro, with a referendum – providing ample opportunities for potshots at Chancellor Merkel, playing to  a revived anti-German sentiment originating in the Nazi occupation of Italy. Hence Grillo’s proposals for ‘citizen’s wage’ for the unemployed, support for small and medium sized businesses, a strengthened say for small shareholders while demanding a clamp down on financial speculation and executive greed. Hence his call to reverse cuts to health and education. But Grillo is also strong on issues fundamental to a functioning democracy, like a law on the conflict of interest (targeting Berlusconi), which explicably the centre-Left failed to implement when in government. True he is silent on tax, and the big economic issues, like the role of public spending and government activism in kick starting growth and job creation, and the roll back in labour rights. And overall his policies – developed, like the Pirate parties of northern Europe – by activists via the web, lack detail. But the fact that far more left-wing voters (accounting for 40% of his supporters according to one survey) than right wingers swung behind him is telling.

What happens now? The ‘markets’, a media euphemism for the global elite, are all jittery about renewed political instability in Italy. Bersani’s centre-left coalition, while enjoying a majority in the House, has not won control of the Senate, and cannot do so even with the support of Monti.

So there’s pressure from some quarters internationally for a grand coalition between Bersani and Berlusconi. This would actually just mean more of the same – a downward spiral of economic decline, falling employment and living standards even as the dreaded ‘spreads’ eased –  since Monti’s premiership these past 14 months has required a tacit alliance between Bersani and Berlusconi in parliament. And it would be an inherently unstable alliance, not least because each of the constituent parties to that alliance are often contradictory political agglomerations (for example there are continuous tensions between the former communists and christian democrats who fused into the Democrats). And there’s Berlusconi himself who follows no other path than his own preoccupations with his legal woes and business interests.

Fortunately it seems Bersani is resisting these voices, and today some kind of rapprochement with Grillo appeared to be in the making. There’s certainly potential to find common ground around a number of progressive policies, although if they stick to EU mandated austerity policies this leaves little room for hope. What’s for sure, there’s more in a deal with Grillo for the Democrats than for the Five Star Movement. If Bersani can’t do a deal, then grand coalition or not, elections will be likely coming round again soon. And it could be the comedian-blogger’s movement that is projected into government.

Tom Gill blogs at www.revolting-europe.com

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Tom Gill edits Revolting Europe.

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