Grillo’s Anti-Austerity Wave Crashes Into Italian Parliament

Beppe Grillo, the comic banned from Italian television decades ago for ridiculing a corrupt cadre of ruling lawmakers, had his political satire rewarded yesterday with more than 160 seats in Parliament.

Grillo’s parliamentary list filled with political neophytes amassed enough votes in yesterday’s election to deny a majority to front-runner Pier Luigi Bersani and a comeback to three-time Premier Silvio Berlusconi. As his competitors seek to cobble together a make-shift alliance, the 64-year-old Grillo is keeping his distance and preparing for a new vote.

“They can’t hold us back any longer,” Grillo said late yesterday in a video posted to his website. “They might go on another seven or eight months and produce a disaster, but we will be watching and working to keep it under control.”

With the economy shrinking for a second year, voters heeded his call to reject established parties. In so doing, they placed Grillo, who says he identifies with deceased comedy icon Lenny Bruce, at the center of the debate over the future of the euro area. The ballot that swept Grillo’s forces into parliament rejected the German-inspired austerity put into practice by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti.

“He is articulating some very, very intuitively appealing feelings and thoughts,” said Georg Grodzki, head of credit research at Legal & General Investment Management in London, which has about $290 billion of bond funds. “If there is something positive about Grillo from a market perspective then it is that he is forcing a serious debate about key issues the other parties don’t dare to address.”

Manslaughter Conviction

Grillo himself won’t be joining his deputies in parliament. He says his criminal record, stemming from a manslaughter conviction in the 1980s, renders him unfit to serve. Grillo was convicted for his role in a single-car accident that killed two friends and their son. His work as an activist, which bridged his comedy career and political debut, focused on uncovering corruption and denouncing criminal behavior in government and at corporations like Parmalat SpA.

Grillo’s 5 Star Movement garnered the most votes of any single party in the Chamber of Deputies with 8.69 million of 35 million ballots cast, or 26 percent. The comic was denied the bonus seats handed out to the winning coalition because Bersani’s Democratic Party, which got 8.64 million votes, was boosted by smaller allies that brought its total to 10 million.

Likened to Lenny

Grillo embraced activism after his TV ban, which he says was handed down because he called then-Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi a crook on state-broadcaster RAI. That joke prompted a hotel doorman to liken him to Bruce, who died of a drug overdose in 1966, and congratulate him for rebuking people in power, Grillo recalled in an interview this month.

“I hope I don’t meet my end the same way,” Grillo said. “But maybe a little by nature, I do have this desire to stun and provoke.”

Grillo carved out a constituency among recession-scarred voters by blaming the Monti administration, which governed with the backing on Berlusconi and Bersani, for imposing tax increases on an economy in decline. His supporters turned out in the thousands for his 73-stop campaign tour of Italy and cheered as he denounced corruption in politics and banker pay, demanded tax cuts for small businesses and called for a referendum on euro membership.

Hung Parliament

Adele Costantini, a 50-year-old doctor in Rome, embraced Grillo as a vote for change and applauded the comic’s resolve not to compromise with establishment politicians like Bersani, Berlusconi and Monti’s biggest ally, Pier Ferdinando Casini.

“I want a hung Parliament,” said Costantini at a polling station yesterday. “I want to vote again in a few months with all new candidates. If Grillo wins, the old parties lose. Bersani, Berlusconi, Casini all lose, and hopefully we’ll never see them again.”

Grillo’s forces will get 108 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and at least 54 seats in the Senate. While Bersani won a majority in the lower house thanks to the bonus seats, no single political force amassed more than 40 percent of the Senate. Berlusconi said in an interview televised today on Canale 5 that he is open to forming a broad coalition to avoid a new vote.

“None of the mainstream parties would be likely to risk giving the Five Star Movement a new opportunity right away,” Wolfango Piccoli, Eurasia Group’s head for Europe said today in a research note. “An immediate return to the polls would only swell support for Grillo.”

Reaching Out

In the weeks leading up to the vote, Grillo’s rivals began reaching out to his supporters. Bersani, an ex-communist and head of the union-backed Democratic Party, or PD, said in his campaign-closing appearance Feb. 22 that he understood and loved people who turned out for Grillo rallies.

After the vote, Bersani’s chief ally Nichi Vendola said he would seek to find agreements with Grillo’s parliamentarians on issues such as conflict-of-interest laws and corruption. The 5 Star lawmakers, chosen on what Grillo called an online primary, may not be receptive to cooperation if they have been listening to their leader’s rhetoric.

“The PD and Berlusconi have been deaf for 20 years,” Grillo said at a rally two weeks ago, reprising one of his stump lines for a crowd of about 4,000 people in freezing temperatures in Trento, near the border with Austria. “That’s enough, we have to send them home. We have to take the country back.”

Such lines were foreshadowed by the 1983 remark that got him banned from RAI: then-Premier Craxi, he joked, on a state visit to China, asks his host, “so if you’re all socialists here in China, who do you steal from?”