Beppe Grillo is an unlikely political hero. He is a chubby 63-year-old comedian with long grey hair and a caustic wit better suited to a stand-up routine than the floor of the Italian parliament. But as the winds of political change swept across France and Greece a week ago, the popular comic, who loathes the political establishment and the euro, caused a tsunami of his own at the ballot box here.

Grillo heads the Five Star Movement, which swept local elections across the country and delivered an anti-austerity message to former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party (PdL) and the other major parties.

“This is an historical moment,” Grillo said in a rare TV interview with a French camera crew. “This is the implosion of traditional politics. It is a cultural transition, not just political. ”

Two years ago Grillo began mustering thousands of disillusioned Italians via the internet and social media for street protests called “Go fu-k yourself” during the divisive Berlusconi era. His big mouth and bombastic style have continued to strengthen his support in recent months as the deepening financial crisis and a series of corruption scandals started to bite across the political spectrum.

As Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga” trial groans on in Milan, unemployment continues to grow and the economy slows further. In recent months there has been an alarming increase in suicides that may or may not be related to the ongoing hardship.

Last week’s local elections in more than 900 towns and cities were seen as the first big political test for Mario Monti’s technocratic government, which took office last November. Grillo’s opposition to tax increases, political corruption and the euro proved to be a powerful draw for the disaffected.

“The parties don’t make sense any more,” Grillo said this week. “In people’s minds the parties have already gone.”

In the northern city of Parma, Grillo’s movement toppled Berlusconi’s party, which had previously dominated local politics, winning nearly 20% of the vote and enough for a run-off there on May 20-21. Berlusconi’s party also suffered in other cities like Genoa where Grillo’s movement won 14% of the vote and in Verona where it took 9%.

“We chose the wrong candidates and I’m not afraid to admit it,” said former defence minister Ignazio La Russa, a PdL powerbroker. “There’s a mania to select (the candidates) with the best looks instead of knowing what their experience is, while the people want trustworthy candidates.”

The right-wing Northern League, Berlusconi’s former coalition partner that has been devastated by a funding scandal involving former leader Umberto Bossi, also polled poorly in its traditional strongholds.

“We are looking for a cultural change, not only political,” Grillo said this week. “We are entering a hyper-democracy. The citizens voted by themselves.”

Grillo’s movement has continued to build since it won 1.8% of the vote in 2010, and 3.4% at Milan’s mayoral election last year. He has insisted he is not interested in a parliamentary career himself despite at least one magazine headline billing him as “the high-flying Grillo”. His blog is filled with promotions for comedy videos and his book entitled High Voracity with a subtitle saying: “We are stopping the politics that is eating up our country.”

Professor Giovanni Orsina, deputy director of the school of government at Luiss University in Rome, said that Grillo’s emergence was significant.

“It really shows that Italian voters are totally disillusioned with other parties and this is very strong indeed,” Orsina said. “Italians are very dissatisfied with what they have. They could have voted for the centre-left Democratic Party but they didn’t. The main political parties are not considered worthy of their vote.”

Italy’s local election results came after the victory of Socialist Francois Hollande in France and the controversial election in Greece.

“Grillo is surfing the wave, a wave that he reckons will wipe away the parties,” said James Walston, professor in international relations at the American University in Rome.

While the mainstream political parties are having trouble digesting Grillo’s success, they admire him and his movement.

“They are smart guys and they obtained an exceptional result,” said Antonio Di Munno, a PdL candidate in Comacchio near Ferrara. “They were represented for the first time here and took 22% of the vote.”

Nevertheless Italians are now asking what Grillo can offer in the future. “They were elected on the basis of a few slogans that they used,” one 24-year old university student told Crikey. “But if they were to be elected tomorrow to guide a governmental coalition, they would have no answer to the main political issues of the day.”

While Prime Minister Mario Monti was not in the election race, it was a test for his two main supporters — the centre-right PdL and the centre-left Democratc Party — ahead of national elections to be held in early 2013.

Peter Fray

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