Sunday, February 24, 2013

Grillo—an Italian Pop?

One of the few things that really annoys me about educated Europeans is their habit of calling anything they believe beneath them "populist."  I have some understanding of the history of the People's Party—the folks who actually coined the word Populist to describe themselves.  So most of the time when I hear an European "intellectual" use the word populist, I just assume he is showing his historical illiteracy.

But this time, they may be right about Beppe Grillo—the surprise politician in the Italian elections today and tomorrow.  Even by my extremely fussy standards, I believe his has earned the right to be called a Populist.  First of all, he embraces the label.
In response, the mainstream leaders had called him all sorts of names: "populist", "demagogue", "megalomaniac", he told the crowd before inviting them to do the same. "One … two … three …" "POP-U-LIST-A", the crowd roared back. It was a neat way of dodging the most pertinent criticism of his movement.
And then there is this.  The real Populists succeed when they are profound.  Ignatius Donnelley himself would be proud of the following from a Grillo rally yesterday:
...Words that had been abandoned for a long time, which had lost their meaning, have become powerful weapons we are using to change everything, to overturn an artificial reality where finance became economics, lie became truth, war became peace, dictatorship became democracy. Warlike words sounding new and old at the same time, such as community, honesty, participation, solidarity, sustainability are spreading like a wave of thunder, and are arriving everywhere destroying the old policy.
Grillo is a real Populist for one obvious reason—the political problems he is addressing are very similar to the conditions of 1892.  Mix that with the perspective of an outsider, and it is not at all surprising that he sounds like a delegate to the Omaha convention.

Beppe Grillo: populist who could throw Italy into turmoil at general election

Election in two weeks' time could see Beppe Grillo's Five Star movement in position to stop left or right from wielding majority

John Hooper in Udine
The Guardian, 10 February 2013

In the shadow of the Alps, at nine o'clock on a February evening, the term "warm-up act" had a literal meaning: the singer on the stage in the square was wearing an amply padded anorak.

Five minutes before Beppe Grillo arrived, the temperature had fallen almost to freezing. Yet this piazza, like every piazza he has addressed on his campaign tour, was packed to bursting.

The man who could throw Italy into turmoil after the general election on 24 and 25 February began conversationally, but was soon roaring his execration of his country's established politicians to a crowd of several thousand.

"They're terrorised," he cried. "They're frightened because this movement" – he waved a hand over the square – "is becoming something extraordinary." With a gesture, he had gathered everyone present into something he said was "no longer a movement, but a community".

After fading in the polls, Grillo's Five Star Movement (M5S) is surging back, its cause boosted by the scandal at Italy's third-biggest bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS). Since MPS was always beholden to the left, the scandal proves to many Italians what Grillo has always claimed – that Italy's politicians are all the same and, in a phrase he used several times at his rally, should be mandati a casa – sent packing.

In response, the mainstream leaders had called him all sorts of names: "populist", "demagogue", "megalomaniac", he told the crowd before inviting them to do the same. "One … two … three …" "POP-U-LIST-A", the crowd roared back. It was a neat way of dodging the most pertinent criticism of his movement.

The next morning, stuffing down a late breakfast, red-eyed having gone to bed long after midnight, Grillo acknowledged that the classic definition of a populist was someone who denied the existence of left and right. So where did he stand on the political spectrum?

"Above it," he replied with a grin. Pressed by the Guardian, he said the M5S was "a movement of ideas, not of ideologies". His followers were "conservative revolutionaries".

Grillo's earliest political target was a system that funnels millions of Italian taxpayers' euros to parties riddled with corruption and allows men and women convicted of criminal offences to sit in parliament. Laying his knife on the tablecloth to stress the point with both hands, he said: "These are people judged guilty in [Italy's highest appeals court] who make laws."

No one with a conviction – and that includes Grillo, found guilty of manslaughter after a fatal accident – can be an M5S parliamentary candidate. Nor will his movement take public subsidies. Its regional parliamentarians in Sicily, where it topped the poll in an election last year, bank only 30% of their salaries, he said. The rest goes into micro-credit schemes for small businesses. more

Five-Star ‘Tsunami Tour’ hits Italy's election campaign

Louder and more popular than a Ferrari, comedian Beppe Grillo has hit Italy's Formula One town of Monza, the 69th leg of a “Tsunami Tour” that has electrified a lacklustre election campaign and rattled the country's political establishment.

By Benjamin DODMAN , reporting from Monza, Italy 20/02/2013

The people of Monza, a quiet and industrious little town a few kilometres east of Milan, are used to the sound of Ferraris and McLarens zipping through their local circuit once a year like a swarm of hungry mosquitoes. But they don't expect to be hit by a tsunami.

That was until Tuesday night, when the “Tsunami Tour” of popular comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo hit town, drawing the kind of crowds only ever seen at the local Formula One Grand Prix.

“We've had to change location three times to find a square that was large enough,” said Gianmarco Corbetta, a local councillor and member of Beppe Grillo's 5-Star Movement. “A wind of change is blowing across Italy, and we are feeding it.”

While the main candidates in the Feb. 24-5 general election have fought most of the campaign on television sets, the leader of the 5-Star movement is touring more than 70 towns and cities across the country in a camper van, drawing ever larger crowds, despite the bitter cold.

Riding a wave of popular anger aimed at corrupt politicians and the austerity measures imposed by Mario Monti's technocratic government, the bushy-haired comedian has urged Italians to “send all politicians packing”.

'A casa!'

“They [the politicians] underestimated us and now they must surrender,” Grillo roared before a crowd of several thousand crammed into Monza's piazza Cambiaghi. “They must hold their hands up high and we will make sure they don't get hurt. But those who stole our money will have to give it back and start working for society.”

His voice still hoarse from an earlier rally in Milan that drew some 30,000 people, the 64-year-old comedian railed against politicians “who grant themselves pensions of up to 90,000 euros a month when most Italians barely make 1,000”; against a state that allows Italy's internet access to be “slower than Ghana's”; against a justice system “that accounts for a third of all lawyers in Europe” and “leaves 9 million trials pending when Britain has 300,000”.

Soaking up every word, the crowd answered with chants of “A casa! A casa!”(“Send them home”).

“He sounds like a real person who understands our needs,” said Antonio Bruni, a local metalworker in his late 20s, for whom the country's politicians “have never been this filthy before”.

Embracing populism

In many ways, Grillo's movement is merely the latest expression of the anti-establishment sentiment that has been a fixture of Italian politics for decades.

He is part-Pirate Party and part-Occupy Wall Street, but his gags and rants against the tax collector are more reminiscent of Silvio Berlusconi.

Predictably, the mainstream parties have branded Grillo a “populist” – a title he has embraced to the point of plastering it all over his camper van.

His crusade against the country's political class began in 2007 when he used the internet to organise mass demonstrations known as “Vaffanculo Day” (or F**k Off Day). Founded two years later, his 5-Star Movement is now polling third place, behind the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party (PDL).

According to recent surveys, the M5S could scoop as much as 16 percent of the vote, placing it ahead of Prime Minister Mario Monti's centrist coalition.

Having ruled out an alliance with mainstream parties, Grillo's movement could effectively prevent both left and right from forming a stable coalition.

Online democracy

Daniela Gobbo, an M5S spokesperson in the Monza area, denied claims this would lead to deadlock in parliament. “If the policies are good, we will support them,” he said.

But other than on health and the environment, Grillo's movement is rather thin on policies.

Its main platform is one of greater accountability and citizen involvement in policy-making, which it plans to achieve through web-based democracy. “Every word uttered in parliament and every deal struck will immediately be made public on the web,” said local councillor Gianmarco Corbetta.

Like every other M5S candidate, the 40-year-old company consultant was designated during online primaries, has refused public subsidies, and has no criminal conviction – a key condition that rules out Beppe Grillo, who was found guilty of manslaughter following an accident in 1980.

“Beppe is just a firefly leading the way,” said Daniela Gobbo. “It is up to our citizen-candidates to do the rest.”

A 33-year-old business analyst, Gobbo says Grillo's movement has already won a first battle by breathing new life into Italian politics.

“For years television has manipulated Italians and clouded their judgement. We have drawn people back out into the streets and put them at the heart of the political debate,” she said.

Even as she spoke, the M5S leader waved good-bye to the crowd from his camper van, sporting his trademark Guy Fawkes mask. While Fawkes failed to blow up the British parliament, Grillo is still on course to wreck his rivals' best-laid plans in Rome. more
And if they cannot have Monti, the banksters will settle for Bersani—a former Communist so he is both morally flexible and not especially troubled by the practices of modern banking.

Bersani's Bet: Will the Anti-Berlusconi Triumph in Italy?

By Hans-Jürgen Schlamp in Rome

Few outside Italy are familiar with him and even his compatriots say he's a bore. But polls suggest Social Democrat Pier Luigi Bersani may win this weekend's election on a platform of work and less spectacle that is the antithesis of Silvio Berlusconi.

Pier Luigi Bersani, 62, isn't just a political alternative to Silvio Berlusconi. He is also his polar opposite in terms of personality. For example, while Bersani has no qualms about showing his deeply receeding hairline, "Il Cavaliere" keeps his dome covered with surgical implants. While Bersani reluctantly makes low-key and sometimes even awkward public appearances, 78-year-old Berlusconi revels on the big stage and has perfected the skill of enthralling the audience. While the former has been married to the same woman for 30 years, the latter has engaged in countless affairs. Berlusconi is the lavish gesture, the big-letter headline of Italian politics, while Bersani is the fine print.
Frau Merkel on Mario Monte
But how can such an unassuming and careful thinker get ahead in a country enamored of big operas, with their heros and villains? In the campaign for the election to be held on Sunday and Monday, all of his opponents are far ahead of him in terms of media savvy. This applies not only to Berlusconi, but also to Beppe Grillo, the former TV comedian, who fills entire piazzas with his snappy tirades against the political elite and the European Union. Even Mario Monti, the aloof economics professor who is Europe's dream candidate for becoming top dog in the important but unpredictable country, knows how things work and makes TV appearances with a cuddly pooch on his arm.

But Bersani appears to be the only candidate without a clue. Indeed, he is the gray mouse of Italian politics.

Although it defies belief, this gray mouse was ahead in recent polls, an indication that he has a good chance to become the next prime minister in Rome. Though he is more a stagehand than a hero opera tenor, perhaps it is exactly the unspectacular, dignified and boring aspects of Bersani that Italians now want more.

There is a rather authentic photo of Bersani that made its way into many newspapers last year. It shows Bersani sitting at a table in a bar writing down his keynote speech the day before his Democratic Party (PD) held its annual get-together. Bersani probably is just like the man seen in this tourist snapshot, and this is how many of the people who will vote for him see him, as well.

A Bridge-Builder

Bersani almost always has a cigar in his mouth, often even when he speaks in his dialectical manner. At such times, he tends to pull out bizarre metaphors whose sense is not immediately apparent, such as, "When it rains, it rains for everyone." Or, when he ends a long debate and exhorts his fellow party members to undertake sensible work, he says: "We aren't here to wipe the sea cliffs dry."

When he delivered a speech upon claiming the helm of the party a few days back, he said: "I am the one who directs traffic." Perhaps that's just how people talk where he comes from: Bettola, a small town of around 3,000 near Piacenza, in the northwestern state of Emilia Romagna, where his father ran a gas station and garage. The area is known for being "red," but of course they are Catholic, too, and little Pier Luigi also spent a few years as an altar boy. But then he studied philosophy, worked briefly as a teacher and soon became a professional "red" -- or perhaps more precisely a "pink" -- politician.

Initially, he was with the "reds" in the Italian Communist Party (PCI). But he went along with his comrades when the PCI evolved into the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) after the fall of communism. In 1998, he switched over to the Democrats of the Left (DS), which in turn merged with several other parties on the left in 2007 to form the Democratic Party (PD).

The fact that the party line became more closely aligned with social democracy through all of these permutations fit well for the gray mouse. In the end, the red camp threw its ideological ballast overboard and started championing more liberal economic policies. As a minister in three center-left coalition governments, Bersani was so successful that even the employers' association praised him -- which, in turn, put off those on the far left. Even so, he created a new foundation and won over new supporters for his party, which had been on its way to obscurity for years.

Laying the Groundwork for Change

Last October, Bersani succeeded in the primaries to determine who would be the leading candidate of a center-left alliance made up of his PD party and a small environmental party, Left Ecology Freedom (SEL). Then, as now, his opponent -- Matteo "The Scrapper" Renzi, the mayor of Florence -- had more glamour and rhetorical pizzazz. But fewer votes.

If Bersani ultimately wins the elections, things will probably proceed in the same no-frills, business-like manner. He has announced that his government would "move forward with austerity policies to reduce public-sector debt," but he also said he intends to strive for "a bit more fairness and work." What's more, Bersani has already spoken with other prominent socialist leaders in Europe, including French President François Hollande and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. In fact, he has even traveled to Berlin -- viewed as the lions' den in Southern Europe -- to speak with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Afterwards, Schäuble's spokesman told reporters it was "a good talk." more

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