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Italy has spoken, but what did it say?

Beppe Grillo's movement born in protest but now he will be under huge pressure to do something creative with it.

Italy’s general election has done nothing to solve Italy’s and Europe’s pressing problems. In the short term, indeed, it may make them a great deal worse. Yet the results are a fascinating periscope reflection of the nation’s current mentality.

On the one hand, you have the old Italian tribes of right and left answering the weary, familiar siren calls and going through the motions with less conviction than ever before. Silvio Berlusconi’s revival was a personal triumph for a man of 76 who had been written off but, for the millions who have backed him in one election after another since 1994, there was nowhere else to go. The solutions he offers to the nation’s problems are absurd but, for those who are terrified of the future, he offers political palliative care. And with him back in government, countless Italian tax evaders would sleep a good deal more soundly.

Similarly, the centre-left Democratic Party saw its challenge as hanging on to its historical core vote without irritating the vested interests that have held it hostage for so long, without subjecting the long-standing tensions between the party’s postcommunists and the rest to any stringent test and without provoking a rift with the leftwing coalition’s ideologically purer ex-communists of Left Ecology Freedom.

Meanwhile, Pier Luigi Bersani had to preserve the Mario Monti option without mentioning it. It can’t be easy campaigning when your hoped-for post-election scenario is one that cannot be breathed aloud and he and Monti, the caretaker prime minister, traded mild insults and rebuffs throughout the campaign. However, everybody in the Democratic Party knew – or thought they knew – that the left’s best hope of getting back into power was by doing a post-election deal with Monti and his motley crew at the centre.

As it turned out, Monti’s attempt to transform himself from a grim-faced technocrat into a beaming household name was the biggest pratfall of the election. He was expected to win 20 per cent of the vote but in the end got roughly 10 per cent. It was a humiliation for him and his backers in Brussels, Berlin and beyond. The great, grey hope of Italy just two years ago has sunk without trace, unless the furious discussions under way in Rome find some way of fishing him out again.

That is made very much less likely by the man who is really the story of this election, the only leader Italians turned to not out of weary resignation or because they couldn’t imagine doing anything else, but from the sort of pure political passion that still seems a commodity more widely available in Italy than elsewhere.

Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement obtained 26 per cent of the vote and became the largest single party in the chamber of deputies. This was the first election he and his non-partyhad contested. He did it despite snubbing nearly all requests from television. Grillo was, in effect, barred from the Rai network about 20 years ago after making fun of the corrupt prime minister Bettino Craxi and, like other Italian satirists, he forged a new career through live shows in which he attacked whatever establishment figures caught his attention, without inhibition.

He also spurned the Italian newspapers, whose government subsidies have been one of his favourite targets. They in return kept up the negative coverage of him and his movement, which has been a running theme in the mainstream Italian media for years. Yet their carping did him no harm: advised by his movement’s co-founder, Gianroberto Casaleggio, a former Telecom Italia executive who has been evangelising for the internet age since the mid- 1990s, Grillo ran a campaign that combined the virtual and the immediate to stunning effect.

Spurning the conventional media, he got word out through the blog, one of the most widely read political blogs in Europe. He also forged his support into a campaigning army by flogging his hide in a camper van from one town to the next the length of the country. Nothing more different from Berlusconi’s slick, TV-centred campaigns can be imagined, yet both have a genius for getting on their supporters’ wavelength.

What Grillo will do with the power that has landed in his lap we will discover in the coming days. His movement was born in protest but now he will be under huge pressure to do something creative with it. Whether he succeeds or fails, he has achieved two remarkable feats. He has given millions of Italians who feel betrayed by the current system a voice in the corridors of power for the first time. And he has become the first modern Italian to break through the tribal barriers that have long defined this country, drawing support from the right as well as the left. Italian politics will never be the same again.


This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius