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Meet the comedian-turned-political crusader who is shaking up Italy

Beppe Grillo appeals to non-aligned voters weary of political corruption and a broken judiciary. <137>Five-Star Movement activist and comedian Beppe Grillo speaks during a rally in Pomezia, near Rome January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Tony Gentile (ITALY - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3CV01<252><137>

Tony Gentile/Reuters

Beppe Grillo is a cultural, physical and political phenomenon. The burly 64-year-old former accountant has been Italy's most popular comedian, blogger and anti-corruption activist. Now, as Italians prepare to vote on Feb. 24 and 25, the bearded showman is shaking up the national election campaign as the public face of the Five Star Movement (M5S).

Mr. Grillo is not running for Parliament himself. But he has something rude to say about just about everyone who is.

The latest polls put M5S at 15.7 per cent, about two points ahead of the centrist coalition led by technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti (Mr. Grillo calls him "Rigor Montis"), though well behind centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani and never-say-die former prime minister Silvio Berlsconi ("dwarf zombie").

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Mr. Grillo appeals to the non-aligned voters weary of government corruption, strangling bureaucracy and a broken judiciary that, he says, are turning Italy into a failed state. His rallies are marvels of endurance. Working without a script, he typically struts the stage for more than an hour, essentially screaming the entire time about the absurdities and sins of the political establishment.

The Globe and Mail caught up with Mr. Grillo Saturday night, in Modena in northern Italy, just after his rain-soaked rally in nearby Bologna. The following is an edited transcript.

If M5S wins 100 seats in parliament, as the polls suggest it will, which party would you support in coalition government?

No one. We'll follow our own program.

But what can your party do on its own?

Everything. For example, we can open parliament on the web and show the world what's happening inside the parliament. … There are 100 parliamentarians with convictions. We will put parliament behind glass, and put everything we see on a network. … Transparency is a cleansing [of] the process, a disinfectant.

Is there no politician that you like?

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No, it's a political system that has broken down. It's a system that lives in a parallel universe.

Do you think Italy should take back the lira? I think you said it should.

No. All I said is that we have do discuss this. Whether we are in Europe or use the euro, those are two different things. We have debts – €2-trillion, €100-billion in interest payments [a year] – that can only take us outside the euro. We need a national referendum to see if the Italians want to use the euro, not a referendum on Europe membership.

How has Italy become so uncompetitive?

We have 235,000 laws. To invest in Italy is to enter into a maze that you cannot escape. … We need to simplify the legal system, have 6,000 laws, like England.

How can Italians keep voting for Silvio Berlusconi?

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Maybe it's because of our dependence on television that has anesthetized us a bit [Mr. Berlusconi controls Italy's main commercial channels]. … He has his coalition, but on his own leads a small party of two, three million people. They are not voters; they are his members, business people.

Are there any similarities between you and Mr. Berlusconi?

No. This movement [M5S] started as a grassroots movement. … I am not the leader of this movement. I am the face [of it]. I don't say who must run. I do the opposite of what the others do, where the leaders on top decide for everyone else. I am not a candidate.

Who do you think will win the election?

We've already won. Whoever gets on top in this election will last only six months, after which there will be another election and we'll win everything. … In these six months, I hope there will not be a violent revolution.

Do you think Italy can be a great country again?

Absolutely. If we can get rid of these people, we will be a people of great values in five years, maximum. In five years, a million and a half of Italians who left the country will all come back. Once all these parties are gone, they will all return.

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About the Author
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More


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