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The Comic Who’s Jolting Italian Politics

Beppe Grillo's Social Media Aware 5 Star Movement

Italian comic Beppe Grillo is amusing Italy by rocking the Boot’s ramshackle and widely distrusted political establishment.  Grillo’s movement made surprisingly significant gains in recent local elections, even earning one of his Five Star movement’s members the title of mayor.

Run-off ballots may lead to the creation of more Grillo mayors in Italy too.  Italy’s mainstream politicians are dismissing Grillo’s progress as a protest vote, even if they seem to be unable to accept that they are the cause of the protest.

Grillo’s Five Star Movement was founded by the Italian comic to transform Italy into better nation, and is feeding off ever growing discontentment with Italy’s current political parties.

Grillo, and not only, would like Italy to be ruled by the people for the people and not be, as is the case at present, a nation run by politicians largely, it seems, for their own personal benefit and not much else.

Beppe Grillo is very unhappy that Italy’s parliament is rather full of convicted criminals and one of the many things he would like to do is change this admittedly rather worrying situation, as well as a good few other all Italian problems (- .pdf download).

Italians Unconvinced

Beppe Grillo - Italian comedian, activist and blogger.
Beppe Grillo - Italian comedian, activist and blogger.

Not all Italians are convinced that Grillo’s people are actually up to the job of running anything, let alone a country, even if this may well be a possibility.   That Italians have been seeking something new in terms of political management is no secret and was evidenced by the upsurge in popularity of Italy’s showman prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.  Berlusconi turned out to be much like the rest, possibly worse.

Whereas Italy’s traditional political parties ran Italy as a kind of power game, Berlusconi ran Italy as if it were an extension of his own family’s business interests, while continually promising to reform Italy.   Berlusconi’s promises turned out to be hollow and when the chips were really down, as they were in the midst of Italy’s “spread” crisis late in 2011, he foundered and Italy realized he did not have what it takes to run a country.

The End of Glamor Politics

Major losses in Italy’s recent local elections do seem to indicate that Italians may have lost faith in Berlusconi’s “glamor” politics.  The current public leader of Berlusconi’s PdL party, Angelino Alfano claimed that his party had been punished for acting responsibly and handing over the running of Italy to Mario Monti.  Alfano, like his master, is a dab hand at contorting the truth.

Italians have become aware that it was Berlusconi’s foul ups which made Mario Monti a necessity and voters have punished his party as a result.  Another thing Italians are starting to realize is that after nearly 10 years of Berlusconi government, or should that be promises, Italy is no better off.  If anything, it is much worse off, and Monti is trying to pick up the pieces and glue them back together.  And Berlusconi’s party is associated with corruption.

The better elements of Italy’s right, and there are a few such as those under Gianfranco Fini’s leadership, realized that Berlusconi was not running Italy for anyone other than himself and disassociated themselves from the tanned showman.  After the drubbing in Italy’s local elections, the reputation of Italy’s right as a political force is at a rock bottom low.  Being associated with Berlusconi won’t help matters either.  Italy’s voters will find it hard to take anyone associated with Berlusconi particularly seriously.  Much patching up will be necessary to steer Italy’s center-right politicians back in some reputable direction.

Better Left than Right

Compared to the battering Italy’s Berlusconi-right received at the hands of local election voters, Italy’s center left PD party did not suffer too badly despite being allied with Monti.  Historically, Italy’s left leaning parties have tended to be more constructive, and dare I hint it, slightly more honest, than Italy’s right leaning political mobs.  The main problem for Italy’s left is that it is disunited and as opposition to Berlusconi, proved to be highly ineffectual, and a little too ready to let Berlusconi off the hook at the earliest possible opportunity.

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While Berlusconi’s control of Italy’s media did not make life easy for Italy’s left, Beppe Grillo proved that they are other ways to skin a cat – Grillo saw the potential of the internet and social media and exploited it – big time.   Italy’s left, and right, for that matter, are only just waking up to social media politics.  Why have they been so slow on the uptake?  Simple, most of Italy’s top politicians are old and totally out of touch with the modern world, even if they do like playing with their publicly funded iPads.

Social Media Might

Beppe Grillo, through his blog, which is popular in Italy and worldwide, and by using Facebook and other internet tools and instruments, brought like-minded, and often young, Italians together.  It is Italy’s younger generations which have suffered particularly badly at the hands of Berlusconi and youth unemployment in Italy stands at around 30%.  One can appreciate why they should be interested in bringing about change.

The leader and founder of the Five Star movement, Beppe Grillo, is nothing like Italy’s staid traditional politicians who, as with most politicians say lots without ever really saying anything and follow up their incomprehensible words with equally incomprehensible actions.  Fat salaries and generous pensions mean that Italy’s politicians rarely need to raise a sweat.  Grillo sweats profusely during his satirical electioneering performances.

Beppe Grillo's Social Media Aware 5 Star Movement
Beppe Grillo's Social Media Aware 5 Star Movement

Grillo also gets away with somewhat vulgar rhetoric, primarily because he is seen first and foremost as a comic and not a politician.  In terms of vulgarity, Grillo had some competition from the recently deposed leader of Italy’s Northern League party, Umberto Bossi, but while Bossi is not adept at mixing his vulgarity with humor, Grillo certainly is.  Bossi comes across as being oafish, whereas Grillo makes people laugh, while at the same time making his point and making it very effectively.

Not Anti-Politics, but New Politics

Grillo has been labeled by Italy’s establishment politicians as being anti-politics, but this is not exactly true.  Grillo and his movement know full well that politics in Italy is rotten to the core and that the politicians do not serve the wishes of Italy’s citizens even if they claim they do.

Beppe Grillo’s people want decent politics.  They want a system which is fair and which works for Italy as a whole, not solely to benefit a tiny minority.  Still, if Italy’s current politicians want to continue to dismiss Grillo in this way, on their, old, heads, be it.  They could, if they wanted, learn something from Grillo.

An Alternative

At the end of the day, Grillo is establishing his Five Star movement as a viable alternative to Italy’s traditional politicians.  But if Grillo and his well-meaning band should happen to win a general election in Italy, could they run something as big as an entire country?  Maybe and maybe not, then again, could they do much worse than the politicians who have been running Italy since the end of the Second World War?  Probably not.

What Grillo and his movement need is training, although one suspects many are technologically savvy, even if they may not be expert at running a country – but they could learn.  And Mario Monti could be their mentor and teacher, although Grillo and Co do not trust Monti either.  This is a pity, for Monti and Grillo could shape a new, genuinely responsible, political class in Italy.  This, when all is said and done, is what Italy badly needs.

The worry for Italy now is that Berlusconi’s disgruntled PdL party may drop its support for Monti and use what little muscle it has left to block any attempts Monti makes at reforms and do its level best to bring down his government.  By doing this, Berlusconi and the PdL may end up shooting themselves very firmly in the foot as Italy’s voters may well punish them in the event of general elections.

If your Italian is up to it, here is Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement website:  Five Star Movement


Beppe Grillo photo by Lucarelli

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