Perhaps the only palpable trend in the final days leading up to Italy’s parliamentary elections, which began Sunday morning, was the decisive emergence of Beppe Grillo. Easily the most unorthodox of the major candidates and, crucially, even better at ginning up frustration with the European Union and its fiscal austerity regime than right-wing firebrand (and three-time P.M.) Silvio Berlusconi, Grillo’s Internet-fueled crusade has the financial markets and Europe’s investor class running scared.
After all, the populist (who won’t join parliament himself because his 1980 conviction for manslaughter violates his own ban on candidates with arrest records) strikes a selfless note that contrasts nicely with the calculating and corrupt media maven. He drew hundreds of thousands to a boisterous rally in Rome Friday night, where he repeated his shtick of slamming a bankrupt political class. The pitchforks are out, and elites are taking notice.
Grillo wants a referendum on leaving the Eurozone, though one might say that unlike British euro-skepticism, which is rooted in part on nativist sentiment, Italians are animated by the same anti-austerity fervor that has dominated Greek politics in recent years. Tellingly, Grillo has hinted at a freeze on interest payments for the national debt, a sort of left-wing alternative to Silvio Berlusconi’s widely-derided promise to refund property taxes.
As of a polling blackout that descended two weeks ago, Grillo’s movement was drawing support in the 15-percent range; he could well be pulling even with Berlusconi as we write, in the 20-25 percent range. If both anti-E.U. candidates were to poll that strongly, frontrunner Pier Luigi Bersani and his center-left coalition would be hard-pressed (both politically as well as mathematically) to partner up with a weakened Monti, who is essentially seen as Angela Merkel’s candidate in the race. Whatever happens, the government that emerges will be hard-pressed to overcome voter skepticism and actually sustain itself for more than a brief stretch. Which means we may be in for more of Grillo’s bromides in short order.