Beppe Grillo was born in 1948 in San Frantuoso, a lower middle class part of Genoa, close to the port. Corruption and vice in the city, he says are one of the things that moulded his outlook. Grillo’s mother, was a talented pianist and artist but was diagnosed with dementia when Grillo was 23. He cared for her until her death 15 years later. His father ran a small business and was 50 when Grillo was born.
In his teens, Grillo began to perform in local nightclubs singing, playing his guitar and delivering quick-fire jokes. He studied accountancy, however, as his father hoped he would join the family firm, which he briefly did but he hankered after the stage and soon left. He took a part-time sales job for Panfin, then Italy’s leading jeans manufacturer but after singing at one of the company’s employee retreats, he was promptly sacked. It forced him to go touring and within months he was a TV hit, famous for lampooning politicians, sports stars, and even the Pope. He sent up the incongruities between their public statements and their behavior. By the late 1970s, Grillo was a national celebrity but Grillo’s comedy was pointedly political and his act ended up with him being effectively banned from Italian TV.
After Grillo lost his television job, he went back to playing in small towns where famous entertainers never appeared. Then, in 1989, at the Festival of San Remo, Italy’s most important music festival, he was seen on television by 22 million people speaking out against bad television journalism. It was a turning point and he began a career of exposing corruption and bashing the establishment. He tapped into a national dissatisfaction with politicians and caught the imagination of Italians, not just for his satire, but the sheer guts he showed by talking about corruption at all. It is important to remember that the mainstream Italian media is controlled or owned outright, by political parties and corporations, and corruption is often glossed over.
Grillo, who lives in a salmon-pink villa high on a hill on the eastern outskirts of Genoa, began blogging in 2005 relentlessly exposing corruption, posting in Italian and English, and even Japanese. It made him one of the world’s top bloggers. Then in 2009, Grillo founded the MoVimento 5 Stelle (M5S) in Milan. The ‘V’ stands for his signature slogan ‘Vaffa!’ which roughly means ‘F**k off!’ He claims he did not invent his movement, but only provided the internet forum in which it grew. He is an elusive character with a virtual HQ and did not give interviews in the 2013 election campaign.
His politics is of the anti-establishment-plague-on-all-your-houses sort. He attacks the processes and existing institutions and wants a more direct, internet-based form of democracy and a cleaner, more-transparent system. He has sought out relative unknowns for candidates and the supporters that you meet at its rallies seem to see the movement in many different way.
His critics are many and have accused him of being a Mussolini in the making. They point out he is a Ferrari-driving multi-millioniare and that he organises protests and pulls down politicians in a populist fashion but offers no solutions. Some policies his party have spelt out are: reform of the electoral system, based on proportional representation and a reduction of the voting age to 16; halving the number of MPs; ending public funding of parties, MPs to only take part of their salary, and serve a maximum two terms. He supports renewable energy and free internet provision. A real vote winner is his call for a referendum on leaving the euro.
Since the 2013 election things have not gone Grillo’s way. His refusal to ally with any mainstream parties has led to defections by senators and deputies, and purges at the leader’s command without referral to the rank and file is the official procedure. It has shown how undemocratic the movement actually is. In December 2014, the mayor of Parma, Federico Pizzarotti, whose election in 2012 was the movement’s first real breakthrough, made what looked suspiciously like a bid for the leadership.
What is striking amid all this turmoil is that the M5S has not lost more popular support. Opinion polls still give Mr Grillo’s movement almost a fifth of the national vote and, as long as the economic situation in Italy remains bad, his star will shine.