The Grillo Factor
BY Andrea Vogt LAST UPDATED AT 09:27 ON Thu 21 Feb 2013
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. ·