Beppe Grillo's protest group wins Italian hearts
It says a lot about the political mood in Italy that when an unidentified package arrived at comic-turned-political leader Beppe Grillo's house, the bomb squad was called.
The package, delivered Thursday, actually contained bottles of Sardinian liquor - a congratulations gift for his group's meteoric rise in Italy's latest election. The vote did not deliver a clear winner but showed Grillo's anti-establishment 5 Star Movement to be the top vote-getter among political parties.
One thing is clear: Three-party gridlock creating the first hung parliament in modern Italian history has raised political tensions even as Italy's economic situation continues to deteriorate. New figures released Friday show the recession-mired Italian economy contracted 2.4 percent last year, while Italian unemployment rose to a record 11.7 percent in January and 39 percent for youths.
No party won a clear majority in both houses, but Grillo and his grass-roots movement captured a deep vein of anger against Italy's political elite.
`'If there was a winner in this election, it was surely Beppe Grillo. Grillo did well from Piedmont to Sicily. He did well in all regions of Italy. With few exceptions, he surpassed 20 percent of the vote and in some places 30 percent. It is a national party, it did well everywhere," said Edoardo Bressanelli, a political science professor at Rome's LUISS University.
Grillo himself appeared surprised by the breadth of his success.
`'He expected to be important, but he thought he would be a hard opposition. He didn't expect to be a big player," Bressanelli said.
A total of 163 `'Grillini" have won seats: 109 of 630 seats in Italy's lower house and 54 of 315 seats in its upper house. They rode a wave of popular anger at the government's austerity measures, its privileged political class, a series of corporate scandals and an underlying absence of public morality. They are not numerous enough to form a government - Pier Luigi Bersani's center-left coalition won control of the lower house and is expected to get the first shot - but those loyal to Grillo certainly will have a key say in how Italy's new government is formed.
Grillo won't hold office himself due to a manslaughter conviction for a 1981 traffic accident that left three dead.
Despite market unease over Italy's political gridlock, it will be weeks until President Giorgio Napolitano begins convening the parliamentary groups to form a government, after the newly elected parliament convenes on March 15 and elects its leaders.
In the jockeying ahead of the new legislature, the 64-year-old Grillo hasn't given up his edgy, biting tones or his uncompromising positions. So far he has been unwilling to become an ally of either of Italy's traditional parties - the center-left led by Bersani or the conservatives led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi - that he has harangued from his comic's stage for years.
`'Bersani is a dead man talking," Grillo wrote on a blog post after the Democratic Party leader made overtures toward him. Grillo went on to call Bersani `'a political stalker" for making `'indecent proposals instead of stepping down, as anyone in his place would do. He managed to lose while winning."
Grillo says his forces will not vote to support any new government formed by either Bersani or Berlusconi, but would back legislation by conscience, one piece at a time. The withholding of a confidence vote limits the possibilities of forming a solid majority in the Senate, where the votes are split.
Bressanelli said one possible outcome is that Grillo could form a limited alliance with the center-left to achieve very specific agenda items before going into a new election relatively soon.
Meanwhile, Milan prosecutors in one of Berlusconi's ongoing legal battles on Friday asked an appeals court to uphold a four-year sentence for tax fraud - a politically damaging case. Another judicial front opened against him: Investigators in Naples have called Berlusconi for questioning next week in a case alleging he paid a lawmaker supporting the then-center-left government of Romano Prodi (EURO)3 million to defect and join his party in 2006. Also, Berlusconi's trial on charges of having paid for sex with an under-aged teen is reaching its final stages.
Grillo has been clear about his goals. He wants to cut the number of parliamentarians in half, reduce their salaries, pay unemployed Italians a `'citizen's stipend" of (EURO)1,000 ($1,300) a month, pass an anti-corruption law, and create incentives to help the small businesses that power Italy's economy.
He also has called for a referendum on the euro currency shared by Italy and 16 other European nations.
The Grillini lawmakers indicate they will shun the traditional perks of office, in which politicians spend lavishly on hotels and expensive dishes such as caviar pasta while in Rome. Instead, they will share accommodations and seek out vegetarian fare.
But all lack experience, making them an unknown quantity.
`'We know nothing, absolutely nothing" about these new lawmakers, noted political commentator Sergio Romano.
For all the revolution his forces promise to bring, the former comic also is showing new signs of reasonableness.
After criticizing Italy's president for years, he praised him Thursday for defending Italy amid cutting remarks from a German politician who said Italy had elected "two clowns " - a reference to Grillo and Berlusconi.
Napolitano, in Germany on a state visit, canceled a dinner with the politician after the comment.
`'In these years he has been criticized for many, in my opinion, mistaken choices," Grillo wrote on his blog. `'But in Germany I saw my president of the republic. An Italian who stood up straight. Hats off!"