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German clown gaffe touches an Italian nerve

Peer Steinbrueck, a member of parliament for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) answers questions from citizens during an event in Frankfurt in this September 24, 2012 file photo. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano cancelled a dinner with the German opposition's chancellor candidate February 27, 2013 after he described Italian former premier Silvio Berlusconi and comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo as "clowns".


Italy's president cancelled a dinner with the German opposition's chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck in Berlin on Wednesday after he described the former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi and comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo as "clowns."

Mr. Steinbrueck, a Social Democrat who will take on Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany's next national election in September, has a reputation for gaffes and his remark created the first diplomatic incident of his accident-prone campaign.

He said on Tuesday he was "appalled that two clowns have won" Italy's Feb. 24-25 election.

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The vote was actually inconclusive with no party garnering a majority in parliament, although Mr. Grillo's anti-establishment party surged dramatically.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, an 87-year-old former communist with no natural affinity for Mr. Berlusconi or Mr. Grillo, made clear that as head of state he would brook no insults to national pride.

"We respect, and naturally we demand respect, for our country," he said in an emotional speech to members of the Italian community in Munich, the first stage of a state visit that includes talks with Ms. Merkel in Berlin on Thursday.

"Our country has serious problems in its structure and daily life … It has darkness but many lights, and you can be proud," he told his compatriots, stifling a sob.

The incident highlighted the sensitivity of Italians over widespread European incredulity at both the rise of Mr. Grillo and resurgence of Mr. Berlusconi.

Both men had campaigned against the austerity measures implemented by technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti at the urging of Germany's conservative chancellor Ms. Merkel.

Mr. Grillo, in his popular blog, laid into Ms. Merkel for imposing German-style fiscal austerity on Italy. Mr. Berlusconi has made more personal attacks on the German chancellor, whom he blames for his fall from power in 2011 because of her hesitancy on bailouts. Mr. Berlusconi, who has been sentenced for tax fraud and is on trial accused of having sex with an under-aged prostitute, is reported to have made rude remarks about Ms. Merkel's appearance in a phone call wiretapped by investigators, though he denies this.

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Mr. Napolitano has the task of trying to find a coalition government to rule Italy. But under various institutional rules, the post-election parliament must be seated and elect its house presidents before the head of state begins formal consultation with political leaders.

This is not expected until at least March 18, leaving Italy in limbo until then despite a political crisis that is delaying measures to tackle the longest recession for 20 years, soaring unemployment and one of the world's biggest public debts.

The Italian political crisis deepened on Wednesday when Mr. Grillo slammed the door on overtures from centre-left boss Pier Luigi Bersani with a stream of insults and Nichi Vendola, Mr. Bersani's junior coalition partner, ruled out a government alliance with the centre-right. These two options are currently seen as the only way to avoid returning to the polls.

Mr. Grillo responded in his blog to a tentative overture from Mr. Bersani by calling him a "dead man talking" and a political stalker, accusing him of making "indecent proposals" and calling on him to resign.

His Five-Star Movement would not give a vote of confidence to the centre-left or anybody else, Mr. Grillo added, but would support laws that reflected its own program to abolish a despised electoral law, slash the privileges of a discredited political class and remove public funding from the parties.

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