Politics Member States

Italy: And the winner is... Beppe Grillo

26 February 2013
La Stampa Turin

By bringing together the many Italians disillusioned by old-style politics, former comedian Beppe Grillo has robbed the coalition of the left, under Pier Luigi Bersani, of what was looking like certain victory. Italy will now have to reckon with a new player who is as indispensable as he is unpredictable.

The clear outcome of these elections is that Beppe Grillo has won. And that's an understatement. In a mass uprising at the polls against the elite, at least one in four voters ticked the box for the bearded comic, often without having the courtesy to tell the pollsters, who are also considered part of the elite. Not everything can be reduced to a question of gut feelings, even if the grumbling does come from something more than empty stomachs.

Feelings are running high here, and they are not merely resentments. There is a desperate hope that the parliamentarians of the Five Star Movement [Grillo's party] are different, that they won't be out to line their pockets, and that – most importantly – they will listen, which the others had stopped doing long ago.

It is as if there had come, from a thousand offices, the cries of a thousand solitudes, bound together by computer cables. A virtual emotion that, over time, turned into a protest gathering of individuals who feel misunderstood and shunted into the gloomy shadows of interest groups that have fallen deaf to them: the caste of politicians, journalists, bankers, string-pullers.

Each member of the Grillo community has a history and a different kind of defeat: has lost a job or never found one, or lost confidence in the future, in the state and in the bodies that stand between them, like the political parties and the unions. They do not hate politics, only those who have held onto their job far too long, without having the competence or the moral authority for it.

Grillo’s ‘Vaffanculo’

A vacuum of attention gathered around these despairing souls, and Grillo has filled it. At first with a rude Vaffanculo [Up yours], and then with a series of concrete proposals and a good dose of utopia. He sketched landscapes that everyone could colour as they pleased. In its social composition, his movement is a franchise: in Turin, he has attracted the alternative types who want to bring down capitalism; in Bergamo, the SME owners in trouble with the IRS; in Palermo, the desperate and those who are allergic to all forms of public or private oppression. Where there is a malaise, Grillo has provided a format and a face – his own.

The professional politicians have failed, or may not be able, to offer an alternative. It would have been enough to come up with a dignified self-reform of the system, a few cuts in costs and in the number of parliamentarians, an electoral campaign that spoke not about figures but about the environment, life, the future. Instead, lost in their own world, they reeled off cold figures, discussed Merkel and muttered in baffling metaphors.

Down here on the ground, only an old impresario was left standing, pockets full of free tickets to the world of dreams, and a ham who has studied the Berlusconi mechanism of seduction so well that he has managed to perfect it. Grillo has chosen the language of the spectacle – the only show that, after 20 years of vacuum, the Italians understand.

But he chose to use it to say serious things, helped along by his popularity, his energy and even his flaws. Even the listing of unknown candidates and candidates not altogether representative of the population proved a strong point. If, among the many names of new politicians put forward, the only one that wasn't there was his own, it was also because – unlike the outgoing head of government, the technician Mario Monti and former judge Antonio Ingroia – he had not stuffed the Five Star list with pseudo-personalities, cold technocrats and dusty notables.

Five Star everyman

Future historians will find everyone among the ranks of Grillo supporters: from the pragmatic dreamer to the perpetual victim. But among the many last-minute voters there is, I believe, a merger of two seemingly opposed frames of mind. On the one hand, the passionate desire to bring down the system in the hope that new leadership may emerge from the ruins of the different castes. On the other, the rational calculation that sending to Parliament a group of outsiders with keen eyesight will help to keep a close eye on the schemers in the halls of power.

And now? The movement of reliable watchmen is so new that it is still a mystery even to those that voted for it. Is Grillo the absolute master of this team, or is he merely the referee who blows the whistle and hands out the red cards? Will the parliamentarians take orders from him, or, as they assure in chorus, strictly from their followers on the Internet, to whom they will submit every proposal, from the make-up of an unlikely coalition to the naming of the next head of state?

The only really stupid question is whether Five Star voters are politically right or left. Grillo did not take votes away from the other parties. He was limited to picking up the ones they dropped. Next time, there may be a lot more of them.