Comedian Beppe Grillo is shaking up Italy’s political system with his mixture of humor and populism.
His Five Star Movement has already won elections for mayor in Parma and Palermo.
Host Aaron Schachter talks to Duncan McDonnell of the European University Institute, who has co-authored a study about Grillo’s campaign.
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Aaron Schachter: Italy, like Spain, has felt the sting of economic downturn in recent years. Unemployment and budget cuts have left deep scars across Italian society, and this weekend, Italian voters can do something about it. They’ll be electing a new parliament and a new prime minister. Italy’s Center Right and Center Left parties are engaged in their usual battle for votes. But the man who has grabbed everyone’s attention is Beppe Grillo. He heads the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and he’s one fiery campaigner.
Beppe Grillo: [speaking Italian]
Schachter: Grillo and his movement have had some success before, mostly at the local level, but this could be the first time the Five Star Movement wins a significant number of seats in parliament. Duncan McDonnell of the European University Institute has co-authored a study about Beppe Grilloâ€™s campaign and the tactics he’s been using. So, how did this man get so popular?
Duncan McDonnell: Well, Grillo started off essentially by creating a blog in 2005, which over time contained more and more political material, and this eventually led to creating a new political movement called the Five Star Movement at the end of 2009. And initially this only contested local and regional elections, but now, as we know, it’s contesting the general election. But it’s a movement like none other in Europe in that it has started as essentially an Internet movement which then has gone from online to offline. So it really is a original type of political movement, the kind of which we really haven’t seen before.
Schachter: Fittingly for an anti-establishment campaigner, Grillo doesn’t speak to the mainstream media. Everything is done online with his followers. Has he learned a thing or two from US politics or is he the master?
McDonnell: The United States example of how Obama has used the Internet to campaign has been taken on board. But in the case of Grillo, he takes this much further in that it’s continuous. It’s not just about campaigning. It’s about informing, it’s about creating policy.
Schachter: Did he use the Web to pick candidates?
McDonnell: He did indeed. The Web was used to hold primaries, I believe the first Internet primaries we’ve ever seen. They were used to pick the candidates for the general election, all of whom, according to the movement’s rules, are people who have never served a day at any institutional level of government before. None have even been city councilors. They will be complete novices once they get into parliament.
Schachter: Where would you place the new party, the Five Star Movement, on the political spectrum in Italy?
McDonnell: Well, that’s an interesting question because their voters tend to be more to the center left, moving towards the left, but they have a broad appeal. I mean, this is a catch-all party. If you read the program of the Five Star Movement it ranges from defense of the environment, to the promotion of unemployment benefit for everybody, to the creation of a generally free, free market economy in Italy, which we don’t really have.
Schachter: Is the political establishment in Italy taking the Five Star Movement seriously? Are they being forced to take it seriously?
McDonnell: Well, they’re being forced to take them seriously now, because the Five Star Movement is polling at around 16-17 percent. In the initial years, it was viewed very much as a joke. It was a comedian’s movement which they figured would just be a bubble. It would get a lot of attention early on and then it would pop, and it would implode, and that hasn’t happened.
Schachter: Duncan McDonnell of the European University Institute on Beppe Grillo and his unorthodox political movement in Italy. He was talking to us from Paris, France. Thank you for your time.
McDonnell: Thank you very much.
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