Italy comedian-turned-activist Grillo blazes trail for the populists of Europe

By Paul Taylor ,Reuters

PARIS — Italian comic-turned-activist Beppe Grillo has blazed a trail for populist political movements around Europe by taking his Five Star Movement (M5S) from obscurity to become Italy’s largest party in its first general election campaign. Grillo’s stunning success in turning a fringe protest group into a national force while refusing to be interviewed on television or debate with mainstream politicians may be studied by political scientists and campaign operatives for years. Populists hostile to the euro or to immigration have ridden a wave of anger over austerity, recession and unemployment to make inroads from the Netherlands to France, Finland and Greece since the financial crisis began in 2008.

But none has upended national politics as suddenly as the 64-year-old Grillo, a self-made millionaire satirist. His spectacular rise highlights the threat to center-right and center-left parties of government around Europe that are involved in implementing unpopular austerity policies and structural economic reforms. Grillo’s unique combination of grassroots organization, personal charisma, rock-star-style road tour, Internet savvy and use of social media confounded pundits and stunned an elderly political class when M5S grabbed 26 percent of the vote. His central theme is to denounce the Italy’s political and business elite as corrupt and over-privileged. The new-age movement of political novices, which advocates sweeping electoral reform, clean government and environmental causes, seized the balance of power in the Senate, making it hard for any party to form a stable government. “By standing on an anti-establishment platform and using modern communications, (Grillo) has combined medium and message to create a genuinely novel type of movement,” Britain’s Demos think tank said in a report. “Grillo’s remarkable success shows the effectiveness of communicating and organising through the Internet — and the potential that has to speak directly to millions of people, especially those who are disenchanted with existing political structures,” said the study of his Facebook followers commissioned by the Open Society Institute. Historically, revolutionaries have often exploited new technology to propagate their message and outwit flat-footed authorities. Martin Luther used the printing press to challenge the Roman Catholic Church’s monopoly on the scriptures.