Meet the former comedian who just turned Italian politics upside down

The Beppe boom has thrown Italian politics into disarray.
The Beppe boom has thrown Italian politics into disarray.
Image: AP Photo / Pier Paolo Cito
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Beppe Grillo, former television comedian and co-founder of Italy’s four-year-old Five Star Movement (M5S), won a quarter of the votes in Italy’s general election, more than any other party. Because of Grillo, neither of the two main coalitions on the right or left won an outright majority in Italy’s parliament, leaving the government in disarray.

Despite its popularity, Grillo’s protest political party will likely not be in any governing coalition; Grillo has said that M5S wouldn’t form alliances with any of the other mainstream blocs—the center-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani or former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right bloc. And Grillo himself was not a candidate for office. Because he was convicted of manslaughter after a car accident in 1980, he can’t stand for parliament.

All the same, Grillo’s protest party has done exactly what it set out to do when it was founded in 2009: disrupt Italian politics.

Grillo tweeted earlier today, “We have become a force…without money, without ever having accepted a reimbursement.”

Born in Italy’s coastal town of Genoa, Grillo studied commercial economics and trained as an accountant before taking up comedy in the late 1970s and 1980s. Grillo was known for joking about stealing politicians, including former prime minister Bettino Craxi, who was later convicted of corruption. Beppe also became wealthy at this time, but says he’s been curbed of an appetite for Ferraris and speedboats. After doing some political organizing, like setting up V-Day, or vaffanculo day to demand clean politics in 2007, he co-founded M5S with Italian businessman Gianroberto Casaleggio (article in Italian).

Grillo, 64, ultimately wants Italy to scrap parliament and adopt a web-based direct democracy. M5S’s focus is the web: its headquarters are Grillo’s website, which is also Italy’s most-read blog. He trekked through 77 Italian cities in a van with three assistants to rally for votes before the election. But Grillo shuns Italian journalists, believing them to be tainted by the system, while courting foreign journalists.

The five stars in his party’s name refer to its main concerns: environment, water, transport, development–and as prerequisite for a web-based direct democracy, internet availability. M5S is often described as “anti-establishment,” and indeed much of its varied platform is based on what it is against. That includes Prime Minister Mario Monti and government austerity programs (“Rigor Montis” in Grillo’s critique), Berlusconi, banks, the European Union, and corruption among politicians. Grillo has called for the closure of the country’s tax collection agency and a referendum on whether to get rid of the euro.

Beppe Grillo
Grillo speaks during his last political rally before the election.
Image: Getty Images / Laura Lezza

Grillo’s popularity is evidence that many Italians have had enough of cronyism and austerity measures, and also lends support to a more populist agenda for whatever government comes in next. A study by Demos found that most of his supporters were more educated than the average Italian, but also more likely to be male, and unemployed and pessimistic about their and the country’s future–a potentially volatile mix. The group also opposes things such as easing citizenship requirements for children born in Italy of immigrants.