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Italian comedian shaking up politics is no laughing matter

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Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five-Star Movement, salutes supporters during a rally in central Rome on April 21, 2013.

ANCONA, Italy – Beppe Grillo, one of Italy’s most famous comedians, once said: “One Italian is a Latin lover, two are a mess, three make up four political parties.”

He should know since four years ago he founded an anti-establishment political movement that emerged as the surprise winner in Italy’s February national elections.

Grillo spearheads the Five Star Movement, made-up mainly of regular citizens who ran for parliament promising to clean up Italian politics.

The grass-roots movement hit a chord with Italians fed up with the recession-mired economy, tough austerity measures and the country’s privileged and entrenched political system – nearly one in four Italians voted for it during recent elections. A total of 163 “Grillini” lawmakers were elected to the upper and lower houses of parliament.

But don’t call it a “party,” Grillo said, since political parties, according to him, are what is wrong with Italy in the first place.

In recent years, Italian politics -- tainted by lurid details of Silvio Berlusconi’s so-called “bunga bunga parties” -- has turned into a bit of a joke. No wonder, then, that the biggest player to emerge from the elections is a comedian.

But now Grillo, who made his career out of a sharp, political satire that sometimes bordered on angry rants, is in no mood for joking.

During a recent interview with CNBC in the Adriatic city of Ancona, Grillo explained his views on Italy’s political scene. 

“Traditional parties in Italy have become history in less than four months. The Democratic Party? I don’t even know what that is anymore. And the People of Freedom Party is all about Berlusconi, and he never goes to jail even though he should,” Grillo said, referring to the center-left party led by Pier Luigi Bersani and the conservatives led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

"Italians need to understand we need to move on from Berlusconi. Berlusconi is just a promise, a marketing exercise, an advertisement. We need to rebuild this country from its roots," he added.

Partly as a result of the Five Star Movement’s success at the polls, no party won a clear majority in February’s parliamentary election – creating more than two months of political deadlock. The Democratic Party and Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party finally reached an agreement to form a coalition government in April, but Grillo doesn’t think it will last.

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Italian protest party Five Star Movement leader Beppe Grillo speaks during an interview in April.

“Come October, it will be down to us against Berlusconi. What do you call him? The 'psycho-dwarf!'” Grillo said. “We are the real challenge to that man.”

The Five Star Movement ran on promises to cut the number of parliamentarians in half, reduce their pay, pass an anti-corruption law, create a “citizen’s stipend” for unemployed Italians and create incentives to help small businesses grow – including tax cuts.

The "Grillini" politicians all lack experience and are an unknown quantity. Grillo created the movement, but due to a manslaughter conviction for a 1981 traffic accident that left three dead, he will not hold a seat in parliament.

One of their major pledges was to cut down the cost of politics by giving up the lavish benefits and salaries that make Italian politicians the highest-paid members of parliament in Europe, by far.

In Italy, parliamentarians earn as much as $230,000 per year, much higher than the $174,000 earned by members of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

But some cracks among the "Grillini" MPs have started to show. Recently, several members of the movement have questioned why they should live on a meager salary when their colleagues get paid a fortune. Is Grillo losing control of his movement already?    

“No, no!” Grillo insisted. “We had a meeting and decided that everyone will only be refunded the expenses they can prove and justify. What’s left will be deposited in an account that will be used to finance small businesses or to help out families."

He said if every political party did the same the resulting windfall could help thousands of families.

James Walston, head of international relations at the American University in Rome, thinks that Grillo’s popularity comes on the heels of a generational change caused by in-fighting in the Democratic Party, the biggest center-left coalition in Italy.

“His chances depend on two things,” he said. “One is whether he can keep the movement together, and second is whether the Democratic Party continues to disintegrate.” 

Walston said that, whatever the future holds for Grillo, he is ground-breaking.

“Grillo is unique,” he said. “I am not aware of anyone else who went from being a performer to a successful politician.”


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