Playing poker with death: Italy’s unique Beppe Grillo

No other country has such a phenomenon as Grillo. He has already made great advances but his work is by no means done. I hope he does well

Tim Hedges
On 28 September 2013 14:10

After more negative growth, news that five million Italians are in poverty and, last week, some quite appalling productivity figures, people are inevitably making comparisons between the Italian ship of state and the Costa Concordia.

Some people say there is no captain; some say he is so busy arguing with the First and Second Mates that he has no time to steer. It’s a shame: the impression one gets of Enrico Letta, the Prime Minister, is of a nice man, intelligent, educated, and charming. One hears he is overworked, and beset by troubles not of his making, but bravely carrying on.

Beppe Grillo, by contrast, thinks Letta’s position is illegitimate and that the farce of his government, made up of diametrically opposed elements, must now cease. It is, despite the man’s decency, sincerity and competence, a view which is spreading.

Grillo, in the most widely-read blog in Italy, traces events back to last spring. His analogy is not of a ship but a poker game where all the players had something to gain: Napolitano’s re-election may have helped him escape some embarrassing revelations of a taped ‘phone call; Bersani, then leader of the centre-left PD, thought he was going to be Prime Minister, and Berlusconi thought he was going to gain immunity from prosecution.

Now Bersani is out, Berlusconi has been convicted (‘like a butterfly pinned to a wall’, says Grillo, ‘he can flutter his wings but cannot move’) and they are just trying to keep the game going, to no useful purpose.

Napolitano’s hastily cobbled together solution, Letta’s grand coalition, cannot do anything significant for fear of being brought down, and its own paralysis is a symptom of its imminent collapse: significant things need to be done. Grillo’s accusation is that they are looking after themselves, not the constitution or the people.

In Grillo’s analogy Death in the poker game was democracy. He and his M5S movement were at hand hoping to kick the table over, and very nearly succeeding. The ‘5’, by the way, refers to the ‘V’ (Roman 5) in MoVimento, always given a capital letter because it represents his previous slogan ‘Vaffanculo’ which means ‘fuck off’. Grillo’s roots, and his demeanour, are nothing if not iconoclastic.

The pointless poker game goes on, but Italy, like the Costa Concordia, is half submerged. The markets agree that things cannot go on as they are, but none of the options seem particularly palatable. The country has now regained its ‘political crisis’ label. Debt is trading nervously and the Bel Paese is having to pay more than Spain.

This is not a rout, but a steady and seemingly inevitable decline. The finance minister, Fabrizio Saccomanni, has threatened to resign if the political impasse is not resolved.

Grillo’s brilliant conduct of the last election made his the largest single party. This was despite being ignored by the press. He would hold massive rallies in city squares which went quite unreported, such that he would begin his address, to tens of thousands of cheering supporters, with ‘There’s no one here!’.

At his final rally in the Piazza San Giovanni there were 800,000. In the midst of the current uncertainty people are wondering what he could achieve next time.

The polls may or may not be a guide. At the last election the centre-right, centre-left and M5S each held around 25 percent of the vote. The latest ones show Berlusconi on 30 percent (including the Northern League); the PD, currently led by the uninspiring Guglielmo Epifani at 35 percent and Grillo on 21 percent. But in the last election Grillo improved his vote substantially over the forecasts. Could he do it again?

Guided by his ‘guru’ Gianroberto Casaleggio, a former Telecom Italia manager and internet entrepreneur, Grillo pushes a new kind of politics. He excluded himself from candidacy because he had a conviction for manslaughter in a road accident; every decision, every appointment, is made by internet polling, and Casaleggio believes this could herald a new, Swiss-style democracy, of consulting the people a lot more but doing it instantly, without the kerfuffle and expense of a referendum.

This new participatory politics, whatever its merit, is not why people voted for him, and he knows that. They voted because they knew there was something rotten in the system and he promised to cut out the cancer of corruption and venality. His parliamentarians voluntarily accept a reduced salary of €5,000 per month; he invited the other parties to do the same but they declined.

There is a growing feeling that there must be an election soon, either triggered by Berlusconi, or by Letta himself, fed up that he can’t get anything done. Will the Italians be tired of rebellion now and think it better to support one of the traditional parties, or will Grillo find new life as the Berlusconi case highlights the old politics’ unwillingness to change?

No other country has such a phenomenon as Grillo. He has already made great advances in making the self-serving executive look at itself but his work is by no means done. I hope he does well.

Tim Hedges had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer

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