The Italian Comedian Who Is Being Taken Very Seriously

When you talk about Italian politics today, you have to start with a comedian.

For most outside the country, the name of Beppe Grillo means absolutely nothing, but Italy's entire political scene in the last month has essentially revolved around him.

Generally known as a brilliant showman, on September 8 - an important date in my country's history - he gathered thousands of people in Bologna main square, all ready to throw their verbal stones against Italian leaders: they dubbed it V-Day (Vaffanculo Day, literal translation F*ck you Day.) Since then, the buzz hasn't stopped.

Grillo is the editor - and probably also the author - of a popular blog - www.beppegrillo.it - which he has been using as a platform for his populist crusade that can be summarized in three main points: 1) ineligibility of politicians convicted of crimes to hold office; 2) term limits of two parliamentary mandates; 3) re-establishment of a purely proportional representation system with preferential vote in candidates lists.

It is a limited agenda, but - together with his declaration that he has no intentions of forming a party himself - it was enough to galvanize the disaffected.

It's not the first time that Italians have reacted with a "f*ck you" to the comatose state of Italian politics. When a pool of magistrates launched the famous "Clean Hands" operation in 1992, what began as an investigation against corruption immediately became an opportunity for a whole country to settle the score with the power of the political parties ("partitocrazia"). Within a few months, the heads were rolling among the leaders of historical political groups (Christian Democracy, Socialist Party, Republican Party etc...) and many middle management representatives were ejected as well. The left, however, remained essentially unscathed.

That event could have been the chance for a re-foundation of the Italian republic - today in Italy the expressions "First Republic" and "Second Republic" are still used - but, as it often happens, politics and society missed their opportunity.

Angelo Panebianco, columnist for Corriere della Sera, explains what he calls the "big mistake": "There was no difference between a Republic of Parties and Republican state [Power of Parties vs. Rule of law]. The electoral system changed, direct election of mayor and regional presidents was introduced. But the overall structure wasn't touched".

Today Italians are paying the price: "Without deep-rooted, strong parties and with increasingly unsuited institutions, lacking in authoritativeness, democracy is rudderless. Hence the centrifugal and disrupting tendencies".

Beppe Grillo is the result.

It would be a mistake to overemphasize the significance of the phenomenon. Some analysts have even compared the rising "Grillism" with the advent of Fascism. No such thing: Fascism was a serious historical event, "Grillism" is not much more than a mere folkloric phenomenon. However, the V-Day fallout tells a lot about the deep illness that is slowly but relentlessly killing the Italian political system and, particularly, the Italian left.

Italy has never been a model of balance between the ruling class and society, but today the gap is bigger than ever. The government doesn't really address the real problems of the population: paying off their loans every month, coping with old and inefficient infrastructures, navigating the job market. There have been no structural reforms in the economy and, above all, no clear vision of the future. Italy is today a country without a dream, full of bureaucrats and void of ideas.

For his supporters, Berlusconi's experiment was a promise not kept - for his detractors it was basically a scapegoat: but now he's only the chief of a very peculiar opposition and excuses have run out.

The left is ruling the country without any direction or mission, shaken by infighting among different ideological souls, and for the first time it is constantly disappointing wide sectors of its electoral base.

The left has reacted in a schizophrenic way to Grillo's parades: in the government block, concerns for the stability of the parliamentary majority has meant strong opposition to the calls for term limits and cleaner politicians - and in one case, an attempt to regulate blogs. Yet, in the extremist left circles, a chorus of favourable opinions for the new leader of the masses has emerged.

The Italian left has always used the crowd in its political struggles, riding the horse of moralism and justicialist rhetoric against opponents. Now it is losing the control of the horse, just when it's trying to reinvent itself with the umpteenth transformation: as I write this, a new Party (Democratic Party, a fusion between Communist Party heirs and centrists) is holding its primaries to choose its leader.

But if you think that Italy is going toward a simplification of the political spectrum, think again: for every new merging, a lot of new divisions occur, sponsored by ideological purists.

So, it's perfectly consistent that Beppe Grillo's first "political" act was to announce the creation of lists of candidates whose moral irreproachability he would personally certify. The system's doomsayer is still working to influence the system.

But for the new tribune of the people not everything is sweet: last week his blog included an invective against the immigration of Romanian gypsies and his audience was unhappy. "What kind of leftist are you?" was the average readers' reaction.

Other divisions in this new movement are certainly to be expected. Complicated? No, typically Italian.

Enzo Reale is a Barcelona-based Italian blogger. His websites are 1972.splinder.com and asiaedintorni.blogosfere.it (focused on Asia-related subjects). He writes about international politics for a wide range of Italian newspapers and magazines.