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Beppe Grillo: Clown prince takes Italian election by storm

By Becky Anderson and Iona Serrapica, CNN
updated 11:54 AM EST, Tue February 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Comedian turned politician Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement (M5S) is popular with Italians
  • Grillo is commonly known as the clown prince of Italian politics
  • His joke about a politician stealing turned out to be true and got him banned from television
  • Grillo found new audience at rallies ahead of election, dubbed on web as "Beppe boom"

(CNN) -- Italian voters may finally be losing their appetite for Silvio Berlusconi's off-color "jokes," but if the rise of Beppe Grillo is any indication, there's still more than enough room in Italian politics for another showman.

Known as the "clown prince" of Italian politics, Beppe Grillo is a 64-year-old comedian turned politician whose Five Star Movement (M5S) is winning the hearts, minds and votes of Italians fed up with mainstream parties.

"My vision was just to make jokes about politicians," the comedian, whose real name is Giuseppe Piero Grillo, told CNN before the elections. "Then I made this joke about how this politician was stealing -- and he actually was."

READ: Italy, from 'La Serenissima' to bunga bunga

That joke about Socialist politician Bettino Craxi on Italian TV show Fantastico in the 1980s saw him effectively banned from television. He then took his energetic, polemical and provocative act to the theater. During one performance Grillo smashed a pile of computers on stage while lamenting modern society's dependency on technology. Years later, technology would be the key to his success.

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Since then he's found a new audience at huge public rallies rallies and on the internet: it's been dubbed the "Beppe boom."

Despite his searing attacks on the political class, Grillo does not blame former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for Italy's current problems. "Berlusconi was a consequence," he said. "He was the ultimate salesman but one who publicized products with no substance, like a shop with a beautifully lit window but nothing concrete to sell. His political appearance is already history, ancient history even."

Italy's octogenarian president, Giorgio Napolitano, had dismissed the surge in support for Grillo, saying the only boom he knows was the economic one in the mid-80s. But the comedian dismissed the criticism. "He doesn't understand there are millions of Italians out there who can't stand this any longer.

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"You can't ask an Italian, an entrepreneur, a family to make sacrifices when the presidency costs about 240 million euros a year. Do you understand this? Our president earns three times as much as (U.S. President Barack Obama). An Italian ambassador earns 20,000 euros per month. Merkel earns 9,000 a month. You cannot expect sacrifices right now, because we should all make sacrifices right now or no one will."

This kind of talk has touched a raw nerve with Italian voters, roughly a quarter of whom cast ballots for M5S in the lower house of parliament.

This success reflects a growing trend in other parts of Europe where disillusionment is seeing a shift away from mainstream parties. "We have a lot of trouble right now, and he's a different way to do politics, to change things from the ground," said Grillo supporter Martina Paladino.

"We don't trust the parties any more," added Laura Antimianni, a G5S candidate. "They didn't do good things in the past and they're not doing them in the present."

READ: Who will win Italy's election? What are the issues?

"Italian politics are not changing. We have the same politicians as we did five years ago. It's time to change -- I want to see new faces," said Matteo Cavalca, a Grillo supporter.

While there is little doubt Grillo can entertain a crowd, questions remain over whether he can destabilize mainstream Italian politics. His critics dismiss him as a loudmouth and say he simply doesn't have the policies for the mainstream stage.

But asked about his position on the euro, for instance, Grillo replied: "I'm not asking to leave the euro, but to sit around a table and ask it better to maintain the status quo thus taking Italy on this downward slope or is it better to ask what we'd need to sacrifice in order to get out of the euro. Is it better with or without the euro?"

"Ten out of 27 countries don't have the euro. They don't have a risk of defaulting. We have undersold our democracy by spreading it. Enough is enough."

What seems clear after the election is that Grillo's movement will a force to be reckoned with in Italian politics for the foreseeable future. Grillo has called M5S "an experiment of hyper-democracy. The one thing that I have understood is that we are going through an ethical change of culture, not politics.

"It is a cultural revolution of the society: to change the political class is the first step. The one thing I am certain of is that the political class is finished. They have liquefied in political diarrhea. There is nothing left ... nothing."

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