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Italy’s Self-Defined Populist Shuns TV for Stump Before Vote

Italy’s Beppe Grillo, the comic and self-described populist with more public support than Prime Minister Mario Monti, is lampooning his rivals for favoring television interviews over rallies before elections next month.

“Television doesn’t have a memory,” Grillo said to about 2,000 supporters at a rally yesterday in Chieti, a town of about 50,000 people in central Italy. “You can go on and say everything and the opposite of everything. That’s why they don’t come to town squares or go online. Because in town squares they challenge you and they can smell” lies, he said.

Grillo, on a 73-stop tour of Italy, is bucking the trend in an election campaign that has been carried out primarily in TV studios. He is paying the price with a slide in opinion polls since October. Frontrunner Pier Luigi Bersani extended his lead in November and December through televised primary debates, while billionaire former premier Silvio Berlusconi has ridden a monthlong media blitz to gains in most polls.

“You want to see me on TV?” Grillo said to a spectator during the hour-and-a-half appearance. “I want to see you out of your house” and participating in public life, Grillo said.

Support for Grillo’s 5 Star Movement fell to 16.8 percent from 22 percent at the end of October, according to an SWG Institute poll released today. Bersani’s Democratic Party was at 28.8 percent from 25.5 percent in October, while Berlusconi’s People of Liberty group advanced to 17.7 percent from 15 percent over the same period, according to the SWG poll.

School Teacher

Grillo was joined on stage in Chieti by 5 Star’s parliamentary candidates, newcomers to national politics who included a lawyer and a school teacher-mother of five. Grillo himself isn’t running for parliament and has said he won’t accept leadership of government in the event of victory.

“I don’t think they can get enough votes to win,” Maurizio Di Cioccio, a 57-year-old emergency-room doctor from Pratola Peligna near Chieti, said after the rally. “But I do think they can fill a role in pushing for a new way of governing.” Di Cioccio plans to vote for 5 Star after casting his ballot in the last parliamentary elections in 2008 for the Democratic Party.

Grillo drew laughs and cheers in Chieti when he denounced political corruption, called for municipalities to halt the privatization of utilities and suggested the Treasury should unilaterally lower interest payments on its debt to 0.00001 percent for the next five years. He decried the government’s focus on expansion in gross domestic product, saying 99 percent of gains go to the wealthy and that the priority should instead be ensuring social equity.


“And they say, ‘You’re a populist,’” said Grillo. “Tell them what I am,” he said, prompting the crowd for a third time to call out, “Populist.”

Bersani leads the race at the head of a coalition with 33 percent support, followed by a federation of parties led by Berlusconi with 27.2 percent, according to SWG. Monti, who started a new party after serving his term in temporary alliance with Berlusconi and Bersani, leads a political force with 13.7 percent support. Grillo’s 5 Star isn’t in alliance with any other parties.

Grillo’s crowd assembled in a square adjacent to Chieti’s 700-year-old cathedral and opened umbrellas for a light rain in the second half of the rally. One spectator waved a red-and-black Che Guevara flag, while two others lifted a sign that said “Out with the little people, power to the people.”

‘Linoleum Journalists’

Television interviews were a target of Grillo’s scorn, because “linoleum journalists,” as he called them, don’t challenge their guests, he said. In one instance last week, Berlusconi, a billionaire media magnate convicted of tax fraud and standing trial on charges of paying a minor for sex, wasn’t asked a follow-up question when he told a reporter from a TV network he controls he was disgusted by corruption in politics.

Grillo is scheduled to stop tomorrow in Brindisi and Bari, two cities in the heel of Italy’s boot. He will hold rallies in two towns most days until Feb. 21 when the tour ends in Rome, according to a schedule posted on his website. Elections will be held Feb. 24-25.

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