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Five Star Movement leader and comedian Beppe Grillo whips up the crowd during a rally in Rome Feb. 22, 2013. Mr. Grillo says the overwhelming number of feckless, corrupt politicians who are grinding Italy to dust have to be swept out. (MAX ROSSI/REUTERS)
Five Star Movement leader and comedian Beppe Grillo whips up the crowd during a rally in Rome Feb. 22, 2013. Mr. Grillo says the overwhelming number of feckless, corrupt politicians who are grinding Italy to dust have to be swept out. (MAX ROSSI/REUTERS)


Comedian Grillo’s focus on sleaze in Italy is right on the money Add to ...

In early February, three weeks before the Italian election that rattled the European markets and shocked political leaders from Berlin to Brussels, I sat down with Beppe Grillo, leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), the continent’s new political sensation. We met in a country hotel just north of Bologna, where he had just given a ferociously energetic speech in the cold rain.

In spite of the ungodly weather, he had drawn a big, enthusiastic crowd. That’s when I realized the short, burly comedian, with his pepper-grey beard and flowing hair, was no niche player having a laugh because of his dotage (though, at 64, he is hardly old by Italian politician standards). At the time, M5S was polling 15 to18 per cent and rising, chewing into the lead of front runner Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left Democratic Party.

Mr. Grillo was tired, but still animated and, incredibly, only 45 minutes away from juicing up yet another crowd – his election tour, supported by one of the political world’s savviest Twitter and blog presences, had taken him to about 75 cities and towns. I asked him who would win the election.

“We’ve already won,” he said. “Whoever gets on top in this election will last only six months, after which there will be another election and we’ll win everything.”

Cocky fellow, I thought.

M5S went on to win almost 26 per cent of the votes, making it the single biggest Italian party. Mr. Bersani did take control of the lower house of parliament, the chamber of deputies, but only because he formed a coalition that gave him the narrowest of victories, allowing him to collect his bonus seats. Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition came second, taking only 0.3 percentage points less and winning 125 seats of the 630 up for grabs; M5S came a close third, taking 109 seats.

No party won enough seats to take control of the senate, the upper house. There, M5S took 54 of the 315 seats. Coalition talks are now under way in the senate, but they are going nowhere. Mr. Grillo, the potential king maker, has ramped up the chaos factor by refusing to join a coalition. His prediction that a new election will be required this year to break the stalemate looks prescient, and it is one M5S could win. Imagine that – the party has existed for only three years.

The election result in the euro zone’s third-biggest economy has generally been regarded as disaster for both Italy and Europe. Mr. Grillo, a comedian, has been dismissed as a “comedian,” as if men and women in such a profession are not to be taken seriously. The (admittedly very funny) Economist cover featured pictures of Mr. Grillo and Mr. Berlusconi under the headline “Send in the clowns,” referring to the former as a “Stand-up comic” and the latter a “Horizontal prime minister.”

There is no doubt that the election result was not one that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the stressed out euro zone builders in Frankurt and Brussels wanted to see. Italian bond yields surged after the election (though have since retreated somewhat), lifting the yields of Spain and other struggling euro zone countries. The Milan bourse sank. To investors, recession-crippled Italy, now without a government to keep the austerity and reform measures intact, seemed bent on self-destruction. If were to implode, so would the euro zone. Maybe the next pope should be allowed to recreate the Papal States and run the entire peninsula.

No one is blaming Mr. Grillo for Italy’s dire state. At the same, he is not being given a lot of credit for starting (one hopes) the revolution that is needed to clean up one of the most corrupt, sclerotic, mired-in-mud democracies on the planet, an earthly Eden turning into an economic and environmental hell. Alone among Group of Eight economies, growth has essentially been zero for a decade. Mr. Grillo hates politicians and rages at them like an Italian Lear. He calls them “thieves” and is devoting his life to blasting them out of parliament.

Having lived in Italy for almost six years, and having covered the “debt” crisis for almost four years, I have come to the conclusion that the crisis is more of a corruption crisis than anything else. Italy, Spain and Greece are perennially saturated in sleaze and corruption, where insiders and friends of the powerful get rewarded, not hard workers. Italy might be even worse than Greece. It has been run for the best part of two decades by Mr. Berlusconi, who was convicted and sentenced to four years of tax fraud in the autumn, and this week was sentenced to one year in an unrelated case over a published wiretap transcript. No fine example, he, to the Italians.

To be sure, Mr. Grillo deserves criticism. He has a simple solution to exceedingly complex problems, like how to deal with Italy’s €2-trillion ($2.7-trillion) Everest of debt. His idea to freeze interest payments while the debt is somehow restructured would trigger cascading defaults and bankruptcies throughout Europe. At the same time, his idea of a wealth tax is sensible, as his is argument that austerity has gone too far (he seems to be backing away from stance that Italy should hold a referendum on euro membership).

Basically, Mr. Grillo is saying that the overwhelming number of feckless, corrupt politicians who are grinding Italy to dust have to be swept out. He just hasn’t figured out what will happen after they’re gone. But getting rid of them is a long overdue goal, one that, thanks to him, is partly done.

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Follow on Twitter: @ereguly

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