Grillo Expects Election Showdown With Berlusconi by Year End

Comedian-turned politician Beppe Grillo said he expects his Five Star Movement to face former premier Silvio Berlusconi this year in an electoral showdown reminiscent of the final battle of “Highlander,” a film about an immortal Scottish warrior.

Voters “will have to choose between us or Berlusconi and, as in Highlander, there can be only one survivor; I hope it won’t be Berlusconi,” Grillo said in a May 24 interview in Siena, Italy.

After winning a quarter of the votes in February elections, Grillo’s Five Star Movement refused to strike a deal with the Democratic Party, which won the ballot while falling short of a majority in the Senate. Eventually the PD opted to form a coalition government with Berlusconi’s party, keeping Grillo’s forces from gaining power despite their showing.

Grillo expects that Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s coalition of rivals won’t last much beyond September with new elections possible before year end.

Five Star, which was contesting its first national vote, emerged as the biggest opposition group in the Rome-based Parliament. A gauge of current backing for the party came today with the results of voting for local governments in about 500 cities and towns. The PD candidate Ignazio Marino was leading in the Rome mayoral race with more than 40 percent of the vote, and the Five Star candidate came in third with almost 13 percent, projections for state-run RAI television showed.

Criticizing Parties

Grillo, a 64-year-old former stand-up comic and yogurt pitchman, had gained support until after the national election for his party by advocating sovereign debt relief and challenging the country’s commitment to the euro. He has also refused to cooperate with the main parties, which he accuses of being incompetent and corrupt.

Still, backing for Five Star appears to have waned since the February vote with Berlusconi’s support surging. Five Star was at 22.6 percent in a May 24 poll of likely voters by Trieste, Italy-based SWG Institute. That’s down from 25.6 percent in the national vote. Berlusconi’s People of Liberty Party and its allies polled at 36.2 percent in the survey, up from 29.2 percent in the Feb. 24-25 vote. The SWG poll also showed the PD and its allies at 28.9 percent, down from 29.5 percent in February. The margin of error was 2.9 percentage points.

“We are in a divided country with some 20 million pensioners and some five million state employees, some of whom don’t want the change we want,” Grillo said when asked about Berlusconi’s gains. “Come September or October, there won’t be enough money for pensions, state employees and unemployment benefits, because this is what the crisis is about.”

Debt Restructuring

Italy is currently mired in its longest recession in more than two decades and needs to divert about 5 percent of gross domestic product to service Europe’s second-biggest debt of about 130 percent of GDP.

“There is no alternative” to debt restructuring, Grillo said in the interview on the end of a two-week campaign for the local elections in which he typically held three rallies a day. “We are buying back the debt held by foreign banks, but as soon as the amount held abroad falls to 20 percent of total, our government bonds won’t be appealing anymore.”

Foreigners currently own about 35 percent of Italy’s debt.

“How can a country with over 2.04 trillion euros ($2.6 trillion) of debt and some 100 billion euros yearly of interest to pay go on without growth?” Grillo said.

Default Risk

The government rejects Grillo’s assertion that Italy risks bankruptcy by October. There is “no threat of default now, nor in the future,” Finance Minister Fabrizio Saccomanni said earlier this month.

Grillo said that a referendum on Italy’s euro membership could take place within a year.

“I am not against the euro, but I am all in favor of being informed and hearing all the views, what is the Plan B to survive in the next five years, and then let’s go and vote on it,” he said.

Five Star Movement is trying to export its electoral success by developing relations with other insurgent movements across Europe, such the Indignados in Spain. Grillo said he would be willing to join forces with other groups before European Parliamentary elections scheduled next year.

“Yes, I think that is possible,” he said when asked whether there could be Five Star lists running at the European elections in other countries. “I won’t manage them myself, they may or may not be called Five Star, but they will develop on the Web and include normal people aimed at replacing politicians with citizens in the institutions.”

Earning Praise

While Grillo has been rejected by Italy’s ruling political parties, he has been earning praise from some public figures.

In February billionaire Leonardo Del Vecchio, Italy’s second-richest man, and U.S. Ambassador David Thorne were among public figures praising Five Star for its novel approach to public policy.

“They got curious about us after seeing a movement without money, made of decent and transparent people becoming in just three years the country’s biggest political force,” Grillo said. “Whoever wants to do business here in the future will have to behave likewise; while nobody wants to invest in a country like Italy at present, maybe in the future we may give the Americans, the Chinese or the English a reason to come here.”

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