Where did that come from? Comedy hour in Italy

Beppe Grillo's political movement started out as a blog on the internet. Photo: REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

Beppe Grillo is an interesting character. During an election campaign last October, needing to get from the Italian mainland to Sicily, he swam. More than an hour, through the treacherous waters of the Straits of Messina. Not bad for a 63-year-old.

He has turned Italian politics on its head, without even running for office. His Five Star Movement has a strict rule: if you have been convicted of a crime you may not stand for Parliament. Back in 1980 Grillo was at the wheel when his car crashed, killing three passengers. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, ruling him out of any elected position under the party he leads. When he makes rules, he sticks by them, and this alone makes him extremely unusual in Italian politics.

The Five Star Movement started back in 2010 as a blog on the internet. Grillo railed against corruption, austerity and the Euro (he wants a referendum on getting out) and found such a response that he started running candidates in local elections. Last year they shocked Italy’s conservative political establishment by getting Federico Pizzarotti elected mayor of Parma. The old guard didn’t know what hit them.

Pizzarotti immediately began going through the city’s books and within months the former mayor and several officials were in jail. This really struck a chord amongst ordinary Italians who had given up all hope of ever really punishing the crooks who ruled them. Grillo promised that when his party got to Parliament in Rome, they would start doing the same to the national government. And right here is probably the biggest single reason for his success yesterday.

The result is what one leading newspaper this morning called "a victory for ungovernability". Short of the formation of a grand coalition of left and right, it is hard to see how any sort of government can emerge from this mess. The most likely scenario is a year or so of patched together alliances before new elections this year, possibly under a new electoral law that will make such deadlock less likely next time. But in the mean time what happens to the pressing issues of austerity, budget cuts and debt reduction? Probably nothing.

The huge support for the former comic has elevated him into becoming a serious player in Italian politics. Credit: REUTERS/Max Rossi

Roughly 57% of Italians voted for parties that were explicitly against the current policy of ‘austerity’. And yet the message from Berlin and Brussels this morning is that there is no alternative: Italy must press ahead, regardless. It’s not hard to spot the disconnect.

This exposes a fundamental flaw in the Euro, namely the existence of national governments and electorates, who expect to get what they vote for, within a system where the actions of one country can damage every country. Can people vote for, and get, whatever they like and yet stay in the Euro? Ultimately not. So which one has to go? National democracy or the Euro? When you put the question that way, it is little wonder that the markets don’t like it.