Is this a Joke? How a Comedian Became a Kingmaker

The Italian political system has seldom been renowned for its predictability, but this last election seems to have upended expectations about where the country is headed. Pier Luigi Bersani, who should have had a clear run to victory, instead fumbled his opportunity and failed to secure a majority in Parliament. Silvio Berlusconi, dismissed by many foreign commentators as a lost cause, once again proved his credentials as a political survivor by winning a surprising number of seats, all while facing three criminal cases against him, of which two have already yielded convictions.[1] Conversely, Mario Monti’s abysmal performance in the election demonstrated an indisputably universal indictment of his technocratic government by Italy’s people, showing that Monti’s biggest supporters may reside in Berlin rather than Rome. However, in the grand scheme of things, all three of these players have failed. The days of the incumbent government are now certainly numbered and both of the coalitions of the established parties are currently locked in a stalemate that is virtually identical to the one they faced in 2011, except this time there will be no technocrat to swoop in and take the reins. Strangely enough, the only success story that has come out of this mess of an election has been in the sudden rise of Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement.

Image courtesy of Niccolo Caranti, © 2012, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Niccolo Caranti, © 2012, some rights reserved.

This is not the first time that Grillo has played a role in upending the Italian political system. In the 1980’s, when he was best known as a comedian, he was a famously vulgar critic of prominent Italian politicians such as the Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi. Though Grillo left television in 1990, the system that he had so vocally disdained collapsed a few years later as the sheer scale of the system’s corruption became known to the Italian public during the Tangentopoli (Bribesville) scandals. Bettino Craxi himself fled Italy to Tunisia in the wake of these scandals, where he died in exile under the aegis of Ben Ali.

Of course, the collapse of Italy’s traditional political parties did not mean an end to Grillo’s grievances. New parties, most notably those led by the then newcomer Silvio Berlusconi, stepped in to fill the gap and brought with them many of the old practices that discredited the old regime. During this time, Grillo continued his activism, starting a blog in 2005 and branching out into social and environmental issues as part of his touring act.[2] All the while, his old themes of political corruption and the need to rejuvenate a tired party system continued to hold sway, especially as Italy’s economy began to feel the effects of the Euro crisis.

It was with the launching of his Five Star Movement in 2009 that Grillo really took off as a political brand. Drawing upon simmering resentments over Italy’s stagnant economy and the continual buffoonery of some of its politicians, Grillo answered with a platform that was strikingly popular in its character. While vague on specifics, Grillo’s movement has been wildly successful, with his indictment of Italy’s political woes and the need for structural reform as well as perhaps a reconsideration of Italy’s place in the Eurozone. At his final election rally, Grillo claimed he drew a crowd of 800,000, which even if an exaggeration, is notable in that his opponents generally struggled to fill their own, much smaller venues.[3] However, while the Five Star Movement draws its manpower from populist supporters, it would be a mistake to assume it has a life of its own. This is very much Beppe Grillo’s movement; its pronouncements are tied to his blog, which is not subject to feedback and is officially supported by the Five Star Movement. Likewise, Grillo himself has shown little patience for internal dissent within his movement.[4]

For the moment, it is unlikely that Grillo will seek political office. While successful, the Five Star Movement is unlikely to outlast him and Grillo has shown little interest in departing from his comfortable position as Italy’s greatest critic. Instead, Grillo now finds himself with 25 percent of the popular vote, enough to secure a majority for Bersani, leading to speculation that Grillo may join him in forming a coalition. However, given his aforementioned disdain for Italy’s political parties and his ongoing rejection of Bersani’s overtures, it is doubtful that he will pursue that option. Now that he has equal footing with Italy’s established parties, Grillo can afford to outlast them, either until new elections have to be called or the parties try to form a minority or technocratic government, neither of which would likely survive by the end of the year. In other words, Grillo has been given the power of kingmaker and he will likely use that power to ensure that no one is crowned. Given his history, this is not all that surprising. At his core, Beppe Grillo and the movement he created are the products of a long simmering resentment towards Italy’s political culture that stretches back for decades. When Grillo vowed to not form a coalition with anyone and instead allow Italy’s parties to destroy themselves, he embodied in many respects the lessons the Italian public seems to have learned since Tangentopoli, when Italy’s political elite was able to restore itself. “We want to destroy everything,” as he puts it, “But not rebuild with the same old rubble. We have new ideas.”[5] What these “new ideas” will constitute remains to be seen and where Grillo’s movement will go after this is over is uncertain. That being said, it is difficult to see how Italy’s political establishment can survive the trap they have been put in, especially when the man with his finger on the trigger is the very same man who has for decades now called for their removal.

[1] “Silvio Berlusconi convicted over publication of wiretapped conversations.” The Guardian. March 7, 2013.

[2] “Profile, Beppe Grillo.” BBC News. February 26, 2013.

[3] “Rising Star?” The Economist. February 23, 2013.

[4] “Italy’s Five Star protest party makes waves.” BBC News. December 7, 2012.

[5] “Beppe Grillo: Italy’s rabble-rouser shaking up politics.” BBC News. February 28, 2013.

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