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What's Next for Italy's Victorious Grillini?

By Tim Judah
February 26, 2013 11:50 AM EST

Beppe Grillo, the Italian comedian-politician, told you this was coming, but maybe you didn't take him seriously or still disdain the power of Twitter: Italy’s elections have produced deadlock, the news media are calling their country ungovernable, and the true victors are Grillo and his Five Star Movement.

His political tsunami has shaken Italian politics to the core and left the country facing months of instability and perhaps new elections, too.

Last night, having taken a quarter of the vote, Grillo chortled: “This is fantastic! We will be an extraordinary force,” and then announced he was off to bed with a cup of chamomile tea. Early this morning, Grillo was probably still asleep, because for once @beppe_grillo wasn't tweeting or updating his blog.

It has been clear for weeks that the Grillini -- Grillo's followers say they are a movement not a political party -- were about to make a huge breakthrough. This was evident when I met them in Milan a month ago. It became clearer by the day as Grillo tweeted daily pictures from his so-called #tsunamitour, a road campaign in which he drove his caravan from Sicily to the border with Austria, packing piazzas with ecstatic followers.

In the end, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made an extraordinary recovery, but his right-wing coalition fell far short of the support it would need to run the country. The left under Pier Luigi Bersani took about the same proportion of the vote and, being a fraction ahead of Berlusconi's bloc, it will control the lower house under Italy's election law. To govern Italy, though, you need to control both houses, and right now that seems impossible.

So, Grillo, who comes from Genoa, is the joker in the pack. He says left and right are redundant political concepts, and that Italian politicians are so rotten to the core that they need to “go home.” In their place should come his citizen politicians, who consult constantly with supporters and use Internet forums to discuss and decide policy. That may be all right for making decisions on garbage collection in Parma, where the mayor is from the Five Star Movement, but this kind of Internet democracy may not work to extricate Italy from under its debt mountain and create jobs. So what next?

To date, Grillo has said the Five Star Movement will stay out of government. That means the main parties of the left and right will need to form a grand coalition, or Italy will be ruled by an unstable minority government, or the electorate will be asked to choose again, as in Greece last year. For now, it is too early to say what will happen.

Another big question is how the citizen politicians of the Five Star Movement will react to their success. They are elected to parliament enthused and energized. They have said they will support policies they see as good, whoever is in government, and vote against ones they see as bad. In Milan, the Grillini described the way they made decisions to me as “politics by crowd funding.”

The movement has no formal membership and there is more than a hint of a Grillo personality cult. But, with power within their grasp, will they really chose to sit on the sidelines in parliament? Once the shock of success and the election has worn off, some will no doubt begin to argue that Italy, facing political turmoil, needs stability and that the responsible thing to do is to share power. For others, this will be considered heresy. The movement might begin to splinter.

Grillo’s tsunami metaphor has been apt so far. His movement has gathered power and roared up the coast of Italian politics. But, the downside to the metaphor is that no sooner has a tsunami done its work than it begins to recede. Grillo has promised much, but when the election party is over, he needs to deliver. Out of power, that isn't possible. In an Italy without a government, that isn't possible. 

Grillo knows what Italians are against: a corrupt political, business and financial “caste,” which has left the country with deep-rooted structural problems, indebted and angry. He is for lower taxes, no more austerity, higher public spending, a 20-hour working week, lower defense spending and a vote on the euro, even though he says he wants to stay in the common currency. How is he supposed to achieve any of that? Until now this wasn't a question that needed to be taken seriously.

If the Grillini just sit on the sidelines, divisions may emerge and infighting might begin once the dust settles. Grillo's supporters are disgusted and enraged with the state of their country, but the bulk of them are solidly middle class and sensible. They have been hit by increased taxes and austerity, and their children are drifting abroad in search of work, but these people are no wreckers. 

Grillo has promised a new kind of politics, and his almost evangelical message about the need for redemption and resurrection in Italian political and social life has touched a deep nerve. This message has taken the movement from nothing to the single biggest party in parliament within three years. Now the Grillini have some tough questions to answer because they will need to deliver results, or their disappearance may prove as rapid as their rise.

(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.)

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