Sunday, February 03, 2013

Election Watch 10 – It’s not Cricket.

There is a spectre haunting Italy - the spectre of the Beppe Grillo, the Genoese comic turned populist leader of the Five Star Movement (M5S). For most of the autumn, the polls rated him as the second party after the Democratic Party (PD) and ahead of Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL), now he has slipped to third place as Berlusconi’s campaign has got into its stride but he maintains his lead over Mario Monti’s centrist coalition. An SWG poll for the RAI a couple of days ago gave Grillo an enormous 18% behind the centre-right’s growing 27.8, the centre-left’s sagging 32.8% and Mario Monti’s centrists stationary at 14%.

To add insult to injury, Grillo pipped the PD at the post to secure Piazza S. Giovanni for his final rally on 22 February. Pza S. Giovanni is normally the home of the left with great concerts on 1st May and mega-demonstrations for unions and the for the left wing parties. It’s the biggest square in Rome so Grillo risks looking silly if he doesn’t fill it but at the moment he feels the wind behind him and whatever else he is, he is still a great showman.

He’ll fill it and he terrifies the traditional parties. He has called his election campaign “Tsunami Tour” with the obvious implication that the tidal wave will swamp the traditional parties.

Grillo means cricket in Italian and the Italian association is with the Pinocchio character rather than the English summer sound of leather on willow. Beppe, though, is a long way from Collodi’s sage and cerebral character though he does reckon that he is telling the Italian people the home truths they don’t want to hear just like the cricket. Only he does it at full volume… all the time. Grillo’s stage persona was always over the top and if anything, his political persona is even more OTT.

He started off in politics in 2007 with a “Vaffa Day” (“Go fuck yourself day”), addressed at the political world. Hardly subtle. Yesterday for the first time he had to retract because he went too far; at a rally in Bologna he invited al Qaeda to carry out a surgical strike on the Italian Parliament “but before 25 Feb because we’ll be there then”. Moments later, he declared “I never said it”.

His definition of a dialogue is “I talk, you listen”. That goes for his rallies and for his blog. There isn’t much else; he is never interviewed and shuns television though now he has said that he might appear “but never on a talk show”. His management of the movement is more akin to the most centralised Communist parties. Rousseau’s “General Will” interpreted by Stalin.

When an M5S city councillor appeared on a talkshow last year, he laid into her furiously saying that she only went for a televisual orgasm. He added, without a hint of irony that “anyone who doesn’t like the movement, can leave”.

After the Democratic Party’s primaries, Grillo held his own. They were on line and the technical side was not open to inspection. There are no party rules, statutes or clarity in decisionmaking. The M5S already runs the northern city of Parma where the grillino, Federico Pizzarotti was elected mayor last year. They are the single biggest party in the Sicilian Regional Assembly. At their present poll ratings, they will have something like 100 members of Parliament (60-70 deputies, 30 senators) so they’re going to have to work out some sort of procedural rules if they want to have any effect.

Grillo and the M5S is only the latest of a long tradition of Italian populists from historical figures like Cola di Rienzo in Rome and Masaniello in Naples to the 1940s Uomo Qualunque (UQ), Everyman movement led by Guglielmo Giannini and more recently even the Radical Marco Pannella and the anti-corruption magistrate Antonio Di Pietro. They all set out against “the system” and “politics” but from very different starting points. Pannella and Di Pietro acted as the conscience of the political world. With 15% Grillo would be much more than a catalyst or yeast to the system.

A few weeks ago, when I said that Grillo came from the left, I got a shower of criticism from people of the left who baulked at seeing Grillo as an ideological bedfellow. But the M5S clearly begins with a criticism of the wealthy, the elite and the establishment with an aim to find a democratic and egalitarian consensus. Grillo appeals to those who are fed up with favoritism, clientelism and corruption, traditional battlecries of the left especially since the demise of the Communist Party.

But there is a right wing radicalism which Grillo also taps into. He has said that the “respectable” traditional politicians should thank him because the alternative is Hungary’s Jobbick or, worse, Greece’s Golden Dawn.
He made some moves to work with the neo-Fascist Casa Pound only to retreat rapidly but there were Casa Pound activists at yesterday’s Bologna rally. He has said that giving citizenship to the children of immigrants born in Italy is “senseless”. And last month he proposed that trades unions should be abolished and “we need a state with balls”. The remark sounds fascist but he qualified by saying that workers should own the businesses where they work. Journalist and sometime editor of Berlusconi’s papers, Vittorio Feltri one of the contrary court jesters, says that he will vote for Grillo.

This is the point (and danger) of Grillo. Like any populist, he has the ability to appeal to a wide swathe of the population. He is a child (and mirror image) of Silvio Berlusconi, born out of his television channels and their style; part of Italy’s digital populism.

Grillo’s technique is certainly not cricket and his style is hardly that of Collodi’s “talking cricket” but he does act like an angry Pinocchio, a little boy who won’t grow up.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speeches will be given by Paul Ginsborg and Gianfranco Pasquino.

Follow me on Twitter: @walstonjames

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