Beppe Grillo at a rally in March 2008 (Marcello Paternostro/AFP/Getty)
He has been called many things: clown, showman, a “sans-culottes satirist”, Italy’s “funniest man”. And less complimentary things too: “populist, extremist and very dangerous”. But Beppe Grillo, the comedian-turned-political campaigner, can give as good as he gets. His nickname for Silvio Berlusconi is “the psycho-dwarf”, while he refers to the technocrat Mario Monti as “rigor Montis”. Grillo’s way with words is just one talent he has used to shake up the political landscape in Italy in recent years; his digital savvy – he runs Italy’s most popular blog – has helped him harness growing public anger at corruption and turn it into a grassroots political movement.
Final opinion polls published ahead of the February 24-25 election showed his Five Star Movement in third position with 13-16% of the vote – ahead of Monti’s Civic Choice and only a few points behind Berlusconi’s People of Liberty. So how did he get there? And what does he really believe in?
In the FT
Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) presents itself as an antidote to a corrupt political elite, focused on five key areas: public water, transportation, development, internet availability, and the environment. In October, the group scored well in a regional election in Sicily, despite a web-driven campaign spending of just €25,000 – far less than the major parties. The head of one of Italy’s biggest companies lamented: “I can’t stand Grillo. He is against everything. He is aiming to destroy not change”.
As Italy’s increasingly surreal election campaign draws to a close, it is still hard to believe that Silvio Berlusconi, who exited government so ignominiously 18 months ago, may well garner enough votes with his coalition partners next weekend to deny the centre-left and Mario Monti an outright win.
Should that happen, as is probable, Italians are destined for more political instability. They may be back at the polls within a year or 18 months.
In that context alone, understanding the enduring appeal of Berlusconi – who failed to stem a decline of Italian economic competitiveness during his time in office and remains mired in corruption trials – can be baffling for an outsider. But go out on the stump with Italy’s veteran showman, as I did on Monday night, and it all becomes a little clearer. Read more
“If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.” (From Book II, Part II, Section I, Cann. 330 – 367)
3. I further establish that the College of Cardinals may make no dispositions whatsoever concerning the rights of the Apostolic See and of the Roman Church… even though it be to resolve disputes or to prosecute actions perpetrated against these same rights after the death or valid resignation of the Pope.
Precedents: We asked Professor David d’Avray, an expert on religious history at University College London, to tell us about precedents for papal resignation. He picked out two particularly interesting examples: Celestine V in 1294 and Gregory XII in 1415 (who we think was the last pope to resign until today’s announcement). Read more
Some argue that the elections to be held in Italy are the most important for that country in three decades, since the fate of the euro could be at stake. Tony Barber, Europe editor, and Guy Dinmore, Rome bureau chief, join Gideon Rachman to discuss the election.
I have just spent a few days traveling across Veneto, Italy’s industrial heartland in the north east of the peninsula. One of the tasks I had set myself for this trip was to understand whether Italy’s economic crisis is fuelling euroscepticism.
Italy has traditionally been among the continent’s most europhilic countries. To the astonishment of outside observers – particularly those from the Anglo-Saxon world – Italians have seemed relatively at ease with the idea of handing more and more powers over to Brussels.
After the wave of austerity which has recently hit Italy, and which Brussels was at least partially responsible for, I expected this attitude to have become somewhat less positive. Veneto was an excellent testing ground for its resilience. This wealthy region is governed by Luca Zaia, from the Northern League, the most eurosceptic among Italy’s mainstream parties. Veneto has a strong export-oriented manufacturing sector, which can no longer rely on competitive devaluations as it did in the 1980s and 1990s, before Italy entered the euro.
This point was made to me by Roberto Brazzale, a food entrepreneur from the province of the city of Vicenza, who has off-shored much of his production of parmesan cheese and mozzarella to the Czech Republic. “We must exit the euro,” Mr Brazzale said. “And do it before our industrial base is completely wiped out”. Read more
He is not quite kissing babies yet but Mario Monti is throwing off his image as a fusty economics professor and former EU bureaucrat with his first election campaign spot.
The one-minute spot – released today on social network sites and local television stations – shows the human side of the 69-year-old, playing on the carpet with his grandchildren and promising a “together we can do it” better future.
Hammering home the message that the “old parties are not capable of reforming Italy”, the ad skips over the issue that Mr Monti’s centrist alliance includes two of parliament’s most veteran politicians.
If the campaign carries echoes of Barack Obama, could that be because Italy’s technocrat prime minister has hired two consultants from the old team led by David Axelrod, strategist for the US president?
The spot cleverly splices images of wads of cash changing hands and lines of official limousines as Mr Monti promises to crack down on corruption and wasteful government spending while promising economic growth, jobs and “responsible” tax cuts. Read more
But electoral considerations have trumped solidarity with France over Mali, forcing an embarrassing u-turn.
Mario Monti’s foreign and defence ministers last month pledged logistical help in the form of transport planes and refuelling for the French. “We are beside you, Paris,” newspapers proclaimed. But on Sunday, in Paris, Italy’s technocrat prime minister had to explain to François Hollande that no such support would be forthcoming after all.
Franco Frattini, former foreign minister and member of Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right party, is particularly disappointed, having passed a resolution in parliament on January 22 – with support from members of the centre-left Democrats and the centrist UDC – that backed Italian logistical intervention.
“Because of the election campaign we run the risk of not fulfilling our European duties of solidarity,” Mr Frattini told the FT. Read more
A few weeks ago I was in Oxford for the screening of Girlfriend in a Coma, the film on Italy’s decline written by Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist, and Annalisa Piras, an Italian journalist and filmmaker. The audience – consisting mainly of British Italophiles and young Italian researchers who had left the country’s decaying universities to find shelter in British academia – gave the documentary a warm reception. During the discussion I chaired after the screening, Emmott conceded that taking the movie to Italy would pose a far greater challenge. He joked that he and Piras would need bodyguards. Their movie is in fact a brutal exercise in truth-telling, aimed at holding to account those who have run Italy over the past two decades.
Italy’s first reaction has, indeed, proved rather unwelcoming. The Italian premiere of Girlfriend in a Coma, scheduled for February 13 at MAXXI, a museum of contemporary art in Rome, was suddenly cancelled on Friday. Read more
For those used to a democratic system with an established political dynamic – Democrats v Republicans in the US, or Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats in Britain – Italy can seem strange. Some of the parties and alliances running in this year’s general election did not even exist in previous contests.
Mr Monti, long-time economics professor and former EU commissioner who was appointed technocrat prime minister in late 2011, has never run for elective office in his life, and it shows.
Enter David Axelrod, Mr Obama’s two-time campaign strategist, who responding to a report in Turin’s La Stampa, confirms to my FT Washington colleague Richard McGregor that his old firm AKPD Message and Media has been hired by Mr Monti. Mr Axelrod says he had been retained “to take a look and come in for a day to meet with Monti and his team, which I did.” He adds for transparency’s sake: “I no longer have an interest in AKPD.” Read more
Gideon became chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times in July 2006. He joined the FT after a 15-year career at The Economist, which included spells as a foreign correspondent in Brussels, Washington and Bangkok. He also edited The Economist’s business and Asia sections.
His particular interests include American foreign policy, the European Union and globalisation