Euro-Skeptic Grillo Pushes for Italy Debt Renegotiation

Beppe Grillo, the Italian comic poised to play a spoiler in this month’s national elections, is gaining ground in opinion polls as he campaigns for sovereign debt relief to revive the country’s stagnant economy.

“The debt must be renegotiated and the interest on the debt must be renegotiated,” Grillo said yesterday in a Bloomberg Television interview in Trento. “We won’t have growth in this country for 10 years if the climate stays as it is.”

Grillo, a self-described populist, has rallied to nearly 20 percent in some polls with a call to reconsider euro membership and to drive established politicians from parliament. The 64-year-old former stand-up comic and yogurt pitchman is travelling the country doing two rallies a day before the Feb. 24-25 general election. He spoke to 2,000 people in the mountain town of Bolzano on Feb. 10 before a rally in Trento.

“The debt is growing, the only thing that’s growing,” Grillo said. “It’s darkness, a darkness that has oppressed and is oppressing ordinary people.”

Grillo’s Five Star Movement has gained on both front-runner Pier Luigi Bersani and the coalition led by former premier Silvio Berlusconi, currently running second. Support for Grillo’s party rose to 18.8 percent in a Feb. 8 SWG Institute poll from 15.9 percent in a Jan 11 survey. That compares with a decline of 1.1 percentage points to 33.8 percent for Bersani and gains of 2.5 percentage points for Berlusconi over the same period.

Political Spoiler

Grillo has embraced the ambition of political spoiler. His goal, he said, is to get 100 of the 945 elected seats in Italy’s Chamber of Deputies and Senate. In opposition, Grillo said his party will bring transparency to parliament and push to bring down whatever government takes over in six to eight months.

“We’re going to open parliament, as I say, like a can of tuna and make laws understandable,” Grillo said. “It’s going to be death for them,” he said of established parties.

Grillo’s gains may make it more difficult for Bersani to form a government, said Roberto Perli, managing director at International Strategy & Investment Group in Washington. The most probable scenario is that Bersani wins enough seats to govern on his own or in a coalition with Prime Minister Mario Monti, Perli said.

Still, Bersani, a former communist and labor union favorite, and Monti, currently running fourth in polls, may not have enough seats between them to form a government, Perli said in a Feb. 11 research note.

Greek Situation

“This could happen if Berlusconi and/or if Five Stars does really well at the regional level, which is not what polls suggest as of now but again can’t be ruled out,” Perli said. “Italy would have little choice but to go to new elections in short order, probably in the late spring or early summer. Comparisons with the Greek situation last year would be invited, and the market reaction would likely be very unfavourable.”

Grillo has gained traction among voters in Italy as the country sinks deeper into recession and unemployment rises. Europe’s second-biggest debtor after Greece, the Italian government under Monti raised taxes and cut spending to shield the country from the sovereign debt crisis. That remedy helped push joblessness to the highest in more than 13 years.

“If with his shouting and his damaging populism he wants to transform Italy into Greece, let him do it,” Monti said today about Grillo’s campaign, speaking on RAI television’s “Uno Mattina” program. “I don’t want to have anything to do with such populism and I will do everything in order to fight it.”

Car Accident

While Grillo is leading the Five Star campaign, he isn’t running for election himself because he says convicted criminals should be barred from parliament. Grillo was convicted of manslaughter stemming from a one-car accident in the 1980s that killed two friends and their son. He declined to comment about the incident in the interview.

“This is a marvelous country with extraordinary potential that has been pulped and torn apart by the truly shameful politics in this country,” Grillo said. “They all have to be sent home.”

Grillo tells crowds at his rallies they have been duped by a system in which groups like political parties, banks, masons and the mafia conspire to their own advantage. Italy should institute stipends of 900 euros ($1,207) a month for people who lose their jobs, while compensation for bankers should be capped at 12 times worker salaries and parties should be denied funding from the state, he says.

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