Youth of Italy back comic Beppe Grillo over political heavies

Feb 21, 2013
Andrea Vogt

He's a danger to democracy, says Berlusconi, but Grillo's camper van trip across Italy is making waves

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Beppe Grillo

AFTER a week of tagging behind Italian candidates criss-crossing the country on the stump, this is clear: Italians desperately want change. But they are deeply uncertain about the candidates on offer in this weekend's general election. Approximately 5 million are still undecided.

"There's nobody" is the oft-repeated refrain on the street. While Mario Monti is credited with restoring Italy's image abroad as head of the technocratic government over the past year, few Italians are enthusiastic about the outgoing premier. They blame him for tax increases and painful austerity cuts without parallel growth measures. His centrist coalition is running fourth, with around 10-12 per cent, unofficial polls show.

Comeback king Silvio Berlusconi can't be underestimated. His magnanimous pledge to give back an unpopular property tax has not fallen on deaf ears, but there does seem to be an underlying sense of "He had his turn and look how we ended up".

The front-runner with 30-35 per cent support is Pier Luigi Bersani, a 61-year-old ex-communist from Emilia Romagna with a fondness for fat cigars and folksy proverbs.

He starts each rally counting down how many days are left before "we take the spots off the jaguar" and boasts a candidate list that is 40 per cent women. He has a track record for economic reform, having liberalised electricity and banking industries as a government minister, but he is also seen as part of the loathed political caste, tainted by corruption scandals that have damaged credibility of both the right and left.

That's why all eyes are on the ranting populist comic Beppe Grillo (above), the wild card in this election. His "Send them packing" protest message has broad appeal and significant energy as demonstrated by the massive turnout wherever he speaks.

Last Saturday, the wild-haired 64-year-old from Genoa turned up in Turin in the camper van he uses to tour the country (he leaves his Ferraris at home). In the packed Piazza Castello he launched into a blistering monologue calling for a euro referendum, reforms of the clogged justice system and cuts in red tape and politicians' salaries.

He champions the green economy, says internet access should be a birth right and calls for deep defence cuts. He questions, for example, why Italy should provide logistics for French operations in Africa.

"Why bomb Mali? I've got nothing against Mali," he told the Turin crowd.

Grillo's small but loyal staff is extremely tech savvy. His rallies are live-streamed by a geeky engineer named Salvatore who wanders around the stage with his 3G pack on his back waving a long antenna-like pole that picks up thousands of viewers. Grillo's staff are preparing for hundreds of thousands at a rally in Rome tomorrow.

Whether Grillo overtakes the center-right PDL to become the country's second largest party depends on how well Berlusconi manages to resuscitate his political career. At a rally in Turin's former Fiat factory, the 76-year-old showed up an hour late, then gave a rambling two-hour speech as a largely unenthusiastic crowd checked their watches.

He searched for his notes and glanced at his newly minted flyers to help him remember platform points, pausing to recall the old glory days: "This feels like '94," he said, referring to the year he was first elected to office. "Put the prosecco in the fridge!"

Yet the following day in Milan he was another man, full of vim and vigor, unfazed by a disruptive protester who launched paper airplanes with "basta" written on them and yelled "You ruined us!" before being escorted out. Berlusconi barely skipped a beat before returning to his anti-German, anti-tax message, in which he likes to call Italy's tax collection office an "extortionist arm of an enemy state".

Bersani is quick to remind crowds that while Italy's economy was tanking, Berlusconi was wholly preoccupied with his personal peccadilloes. "After the Greek crisis, Italy was on the edge of a financial precipice and Europe called to say ‘You are too big, if you go down we all go down'. But all Berlusconi was talking about was Ruby," said Bersani, referencing the dancer at the heart of the trial in which Berlusconi is accused of having sex with an underage prostitute.

Analysts say a Bersani win with Monti as finance minister would be the best outcome, but there could also be less stable outcomes such as a hung parliament or a new technical government.

And there there is Grillo. Unpublished polls show him with 20 to 23 per cent of the vote, and that could be an under-estimation. Grillo is drawing a lot of youth support, and because most young people use cell phones, their opinions are not reflected in polls conducted via landline. The mainstream candidates are clearly worried. Berlusconi calls him a radical leftist who is "dangerous for democracy." Bersani's camp calls him "Grillosconi," suggesting a rich and charismatic figure who knows how to entertain, but is more show than substance.

Grillo has so far refused to sit for Italian interviews, instead carefully curating his own media coverage as he travels around Italy in his camper van. His critics say he is unwilling to face hard questions and unable to perform off-script. In one improvised moment last week, he joked about pharmaceuticals that aren't made in Italy. "Be careful taking Viagra and Cialis, because they are all made in China," he warned, "and if you don't watch out, you'll turn yellow." There were few laughs.

But underestimating Grillo at this stage would be a mistake. The campaign across 77 cities is not called the "Tsunami Tour" for nothing. "This is an unstoppable wave that is only going to get bigger," Grillo told me on Saturday.

It is precisely this tide of rage and frustration against the political establishment that European leaders fear.

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So i guess Italians should vote a prostitute lover using the palaces the tax payers pay for for his orgies (b) or an ex communist caviar eating pro banksters? Come on. It is time Italians think of themselves first and of your fears last. I think they deserved to be trusted more.

Enough is enough ! You have no idea of how outrageous is the behavior of italian Politicians. Are you aware that in italy there are some PUBLIC (not private) retirement pensions as high as 50,000 Euros per month and at the same time of 500 Euros ? Are you aware that a deputy gets a salary for life after serving even less than one legislature ? Are you aware that Presidency of the state costs 4 times Buckingam Palace ? Why cut pensions there are so many to other things to cut ? Why buy 75 jet fighters (that do not work) ? Why buy 2 submarines ? Why spend a billion on war, when our grand father and grand mothers have less then 1000 Euros pensions ?

Politicians will never change this. Austerity is accepted in Italy. But only if every one is supporting it, starting from the top.

Why only the workers have to suffer the required hard measures ?

I'm tired of paying taxes that are used to fund politics instead of people or the small businesses that provide jobs to 95% of the workers !

For this round I'll vote Grillo. Politicians think about what you done to Italy ?

Enough is Enough. It's time to for a change. Grillo I give you a chance for a change,

Just for the record: Grillo has no Ferrari (he owned one in 1985), and even if he had one, is that a crime? He hasn't earned his millions stealing, he's an excellent comedian and showman. And why do they call him 'populist' all the time? Please somebody mention one polititian who doesn't offer a better future to his audience during the election campaign... [by the way, Grillo is the co-founder of his movement but he's not runnung for a place in the parlament].

I am Italian and the funniest thing I've found in the other comments is this: Italian people don't seem to understand that Foreign people have an idea about what's best for US and another idea about what's best for THEM. Europe is a scam.

English people do their interest. French people do their interest. German people do their interest. ...and so on.

If their interest mean Italian people, Spanish people or Greek people, they're going to do that with a smile on their face and in the most polite way possible, but DEFINITELY they're going to to it!

I think that, after all, we (and I mean all of us) were more honest and better persons when we butchered ourselves on the battlefields of Europe in WW2 and WW1 than now that we feign to be all friend and all brothers and try to f...k each other while feigning to be "nice" and "more civilized"!