What Will Italy's New Comedians Do?

To be with the Grillini beside dangling model sharks at Milan's aquarium is to be among true believers, Italians convinced that the only way to save their country is to sweep away its politicians and rule themselves differently.

The Grillini are partisans of the radical movement led by Beppe Grillo, who made his name in the 1980s as a comedian. Grillo, however, is no longer a joker. His Movimento 5 Stelle, or Five Star Movement, is polling 18 percent ahead of elections on Feb. 24-25.

If that support translates into votes, Grillo would head the country's third-largest political force -- behind the left-leaning Democratic Party headed by Pier Luigi Bersani, and the right (still) fronted by Silvio Berlusconi, and ahead of centrists supporting Prime Minister Mario Monti. According to the magazine l'Espresso, that makes Grillo's followers "the great unknown of the next parliament."

No wonder the Grillini are in a state of high excitement. Late last month, Milanese partisans met in the city's aquarium with fake sharks above and real ones swirling nearby.

"This is not a party, but a movement," Livio Loverso, a statistician who works for Milan council, told me. A former socialist, he is now running in regional elections that will be held alongside the national ones. The aim of elected Grillini, he explained, "is to be spokespeople, not decision makers." All decisions are referred back to the movement's local organizations, discussed online and voted upon.

What unites the Grillini is their disgust with the politicians who have run the country until now, and Grillo has channeled this anger. He got his big boost in 2007, when he used his blog to organize something called "V" day, in which the "V" stands for the Italian word for ``get lost,'' only much ruder (in English, it would be "F" day). More than 1 million people showed up to protest against Italy's politicians.

The idea, says Diana Ambanelli, another activist, is to break the stranglehold of a political class or "caste." She said: "They have so many privileges and earn large amounts of money. These people sit in parliament for 30 years and do politics until they are 99." No one, says the Five Star Movement, should ever be elected for more than two terms or sit in office for more than 10 years.

OK, so what kinds of policies do they believe in? "We are a post-ideological movement," says Mattia Calise, a 22-year-old political-science student and, as a city-council member, the movement's most senior elected politician in Milan. As with similar political groups elsewhere in Europe, such as Germany's Pirates party, which also insist on constant citizen consultation, it can be hard to understand exactly what this new brand of politics would mean in practice.

The Grillini want a new, ecologically based politics; a referendum on whether to stay in the euro; the abolition of "effective monopolies" such as the state railway company Trenitalia and Mediaset SpA, Berlusconi's media empire; more investment in health and agriculture; and disincentives for "socially damaging" companies, especially distributors of bottled water.

Grillo began making satirical attacks on Italy's politicians in the 1980s, angering them enough that, in a country where most mainstream TV channels are under some form of ultimate political control, they froze him out. Then came the Internet. In 2004, he began working with Gianroberto Casaleggio, who describes himself as a Web strategist. The blog that followed soon became perhaps the most influential in Italy.

In 2009, Grillo founded the M5S, as the Five Star Movement is generally known. By October 2011, it was scoring about 3 percent in opinion surveys, and support has exploded since.

How the Grillini will achieve their policy goals is for now unclear. The movement has said it won't enter a coalition government with any other party. Grillo himself will not be in parliament, because the movement has a rule that no one can represent it as a member of parliament if he or she has been convicted of a criminal offense (as a number of serving Italian politicians have been). Grillo was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after a 1980 car crash, in which three people died.

Right now, Grillo is living in his camper van and storming across Italy in his so-called Tsunami Tour, explaining to large crowds his thesis that right and left have become meaningless concepts in politics. The campaign appears to be spooking his adversaries, who frequently attack Grillo for alleged authoritarianism, populism or for being in the pocket of Casaleggio, who is often cast as Grillo's nefarious eminence grise.

That Grillo often shoots from the hip gives his opponents plenty to work with. Grillo was attacked for flirting with the far right when he said last month that members of CasaPound, a neo-fascist movement named for the American poet and fascist Ezra Pound, would be welcomed in the "ecumenical" Five Star Movement. Likewise, comments he made about how workers should own factories have led to accusations that he's a communist.

Grillo's supporters in the Milan aquarium shrugged all this off. "Let them believe it," scoffed Loverso, the regional council candidate.

Still, many Italians who like a lot of what Grillo says may vote for someone else, worried that he might not be a safe pair of hands. Cristina Pratolongo, a mother of two school-age children says she likes how Grillo "talks to ordinary people and said that he would like to have a woman with three children to advise him, who knows how hard life is." But, she worries that after the ``bunga bunga'' parties of the Berlusconi era, the rest of the world would think Italians mad if they now elected a comedian to lead them.

Andrea Sironi, the rector of Milan's business-oriented Bocconi University -- which was once headed by Monti -- thinks it is normal that a figure like Grillo should emerge in such difficult times and after so many political scandals. Grillo knows little about economics, says Sironi, but he can still play a positive role because his presence may force other politicians to behave more appropriately. Without that kind of pressure, says Sironi, "they won't change."

(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.