‘Clown prince’ throws Italy into turmoil

Mad as hell: Beppe Grillo’s town rallies regularly attracted thousands of fans © Getty Images

The surprise success of Beppe Grillo, a ranting comedian and blogger, has left Italy with no party able to form a government. Is this protest vote the shock therapy that democracy needs?

From Berlin to Rome, the stock markets are tumbling. Respectable newspapers around the globe proclaim ‘nightmare’ and ‘disaster’, while analysts darkly hint that the end of the Euro is nigh.

The cause of all this chaos is a divided vote in Italian parliamentary elections which, say analysts, renders the economically troubled country ‘ungovernable’. And behind that result is one man: Beppe Grillo, the ‘clown prince’ who has spectacularly shattered Italy’s status quo.

Grillo is no ordinary politician. A comedian by trade, he joked and ranted his way into the national spotlight, using his wildly popular blog as a platform. An online movement gradually coalesced until, in 2009, Grillo announced the launch of a political party: the Five Star Movement.

At first, many commentators did not take 5SM seriously. But as its share of the vote grew higher with each regional election, the political establishment became nervous. When a general election was called, Grillo announced that nobody with political experience was welcome as one of his candidates, and each would be selected in an online poll – a first for any political party.

Rejecting TV interviews, Grillo embarked on a tour of rallies in Italy’s town squares. At every stop, thousands of supporters crowded the piazza to hear the comedian rail against Italy’s ‘political diarrhoea’ . Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, he said, was a ‘psycho dwarf’, while his own followers were ‘revolutionaries’. His platform: anti-tax, anti-austerity, anti-big business, anti-EU. But above all, anti-politics.

After this extraordinary campaign, a successful night for Grillo was clearly on the cards. But nobody expected him to be quite as triumphant as he was: more people voted for 5SM than any other single party. Grillo does not have enough seats to control the Senate; but with votes leaking to 5SM from both left and right, neither does any other leader.

Italy could be on the brink of economic disaster. Unless the gridlock is broken, the European single currency may be doomed. So why have a major nation’s citizens given their backing to a clown?

The wisdom of fools

Because the system is rotten, say 5SM voters, and being reasonable will change nothing. At times like these, madcap jokers like Beppe Grillo have more wisdom to offer than the stale, sane figures in the establishment or in mainstream parties.

But more cautious voters are horrified. It might seem tempting to put orthodoxies to the torch in a fit of irreverent rage, they say, but this inevitably leads to anarchy and disaster. However corrupt or incompetent the political system might be, voters must keep faith in rational solutions.

You Decide

  1. Would you ever vote for a protest party to show your displeasure at traditional politicians?
  2. Beppe Grillo’s whole campaign was built on the internet, and candidates were even chosen on an online poll. Could the whole democratic process soon move online? Would this be a positive development?


  1. Create a ‘joke manifesto’ for a protest party in your country, aiming to highlight the things that you think are wrong with mainstream politics.
  2. ‘It is a fool’s prerogative to utter truths that no one else will speak.’ Write a brief essay explaining what you think fantasy writer Neil Gaiman means, and whether he is right. Include references to either literary or political figures.

Some People Say...

“Better a witty fool than a foolish wit’.William Shakespeare”

What do you think?

Q & A

Italians must be crazy – where I come from we’d never elect a clown.
Are you sure? In a UK by-election just this week, a comedian called John O’Farrell will be Labour’s official candidate. In the USA,Friday Night Live regular Al Franken now sits in the Senate. Semi-satirical ‘Pirate Parties’ are surging in the polls in several European countries, including Germany. Jokers are an increasingly serious political presence.
But surely they won’t actually come to power?
Perhaps not – but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. By rejecting traditional methods and ideologies, these parties intend to send a message of public dissatisfaction to politicians. And if enough people vote for them in protest, mainstream parties may be forced to listen.

Word Watch

Stock markets
Political uncertainties generally unsettle the global markets, because when investors cannot predict the financial climate they become cautious. But Italy’s circumstances make the situation particularly precarious: the EU’s plan for common currency relies on Italy carrying out a strict austerity programme to drive down debt, but Beppe Grillo opposes austerity, and without a stable government it may prove impossible.
Status quo
Prior to this election, Italy was being ruled by Mario Monti, a centrist economist widely seen to represent the political programme of the EU. His partly performed very poorly. More generally, Italian politics has always been mired in corruption scandals, infighting and instability.
His candidates
Beppe Grillo himself did not stand for election. No candidate with a criminal record was allowed to represent 5SM, and Grillo was convicted of manslaughter in 1980 after crashing his car on a mountain.
Silvio Berlusconi
Grillo is not the first divisive maverick on the Italian scene: Berlusconi, the three-time Prime Minister who has dominated the Italian right for 20 years, is one of the strangest figures in European politics. His career seemed to be over in 2011 after a string of scandals over sex and corruption, but this week his parties received 30% of the vote.
Single party
In Italian politics, parties often come together in coalitions. Since 5SM rejects alliances with other parties, it is unlikely to come to power: the centre-right and centre-left alliances remain greater forces in the parliament.
Italy’s parliament has two chambers: the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. To govern effectively, a coalition must have a majority in both.


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