Beppe Grillo: The new live wire of Italian politics
Comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo is the man of the moment in Italy after his Internet-based movement made big gains in local polls last weekend with a blend of populism and eco-friendly initiatives.
A candidate from Grillo's "Five Star Movement" won out against mainstream parties to win a mayoral race in the city of Parma, and the group won around 8.0 percent of the vote in the towns it contested in the partial elections.
"We conquered Stalingrad, now we're on the road to Berlin!" the excitable orator, a bushy-haired 63-year-old who drew large crowds during the campaign, told his supporters via Skype from his villa in Genoa in northwest Italy.
Grillo is now hoping to build on the success and put forward candidates in a general election in 2013, even though he says he has no political ambitions of his own and wants to encourage more young people to do politics.
"It's a victory for democracy over capitalism," said Grillo, who uses mainly social media networks and rarely gives interviews to Italian journalists, accusing them of being members of the same corrupt elite as politicians.
His blog is the most widely read in Italy and he counts 831,656 fans on Facebook and 543,000 followers on Twitter in this country of 60 million people.
Grillo says traditional politics is over and advocates a "participatory democracy" in which ordinary citizens can become local protagonists.
Apart from Parma, a city of 188,000 residents that is traditionally dominated by the centre-right, Grillo's movement also won a mayoral race in Mira (39,000 inhabitants), Comacchio (23,000) and Sarego (6,500).
Dozens of mostly young candidates -- nicknamed "Grillini" or "Little Crickets" after the politician's name -- also won seats on city councils, promising transparency, integrity and environmental initiatives.
Candidate Federico Pizzarrotti's victory in Parma was aided by the catastrophic situation that the city finds itself in -- on the verge of bankruptcy and under pressure from multiple corruption investigations.
Grillo says his initiatives -- like massive use of renewable energy -- can be funded through cuts in military spending, an end to wasteful public projects and a stop to public subsidies and perks for politicians and the media.
"The list of possible cuts is infinite but (Prime Minister Mario) Monti cannot implement them. The system cannot reform itself," said Grillo, who calls Italy's famously bickering political parties a "cancer of democracy."
This type of rhetoric has found wide resonance among ordinary Italians wearied by the antics of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and a series of scandals over political subsidies used to fund lavish lifestyles.
Grillo started out as a stand-up comic and became a showman on Rai public television in the 1970s before being kicked out for making jokes about then prime minister Bettino Craxi, who was subsequently convicted for corruption.
Grillo's television success made him a millionaire, which has allowed him to fund his movement mainly out of his own pocket. He returned to television in the 1990s and became well-known for his environmental advocacy work.
His political debut came in 2007 when he used Internet mobilisation to organise mass demonstrations against Italy's political class entitled "Vaffanculo Day" ("Fuck Off Day") -- which attracted hundreds of thousands of people.
His biting tongue and fondness for expletives spares few in Italy's current political spectrum, and he nicknames Monti "Rigor Montis" -- a satirical reference to the widely respected prime minister's somewhat sober style.
He dismissed Berlusconi as "ancient history" in an interview with AFP, and some of his most vehement rhetoric is against President Giorgio Napolitano, a former Communist Party official whom Grillo calls a "party hack".