Tea Party, Italian style

Incredibly, with the U.S. presidential elections days away, the near-final results of a race for the regional government in Sicily Sunday rivaled any news from the American campaign trail. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama had to share front-pages of major papers with, well, a comedian.

It’s true. With about two-thirds of the vote counted in legislative elections on the island of 5 million, members of the new anti-austerity, anti-Establishment Five Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo topped the field with 15 per cent. They were followed by the center-left Democratic Party, then the center-right People for Liberty (founded by Italy’s controversial former Premier Sylvio Berlusconi), and numerous smaller parties.

“Five Star is Italian for Tea Party,” is how one wag put it. The comparison is legitimate. Like its counterpart in the U.S., the Five Star Movement denounces the financial community in Italy — “the forces” — and professional politicians, supporting bans on politicians serving in office who are convicted of a crime. In terms of Europe, Five Star wants a referendum on Italy remaining in the Euro currency, an end to the austerity agenda of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, and a suspension of payments on the national debt.

With national elections in Italy likely to be held next April or May, most polls show the Five Star Movement drawing about 20 percent of the vote nationwide and running second between the two major only slightly trailing or even leading the two major parties.

Should Five Star be the force that determines the next government in Rome, one is likely to feel tsunami waves in financial centers throughout Europe and in the U.S. It could happen: a stalemate following parliamentary elections could lead to Monti — an economist who belongs to no party and is an appointed member of the Italian senate — reversing an earlier announcement that he would step down as prime minister, but this time being forced to include in his Cabinet the political outsiders who denounce him as “Rigor Montis” for his austerity agenda.

Like Letterman, Leno, Franken — and Poujade?

As much of  a headline-grabber as this new movement is, is the Genoa-born comedian who started it all: Beppe Grillo, as popular with Italian audiences in the 1970s and ’80s as Jay Leno and David Letterman are today. Now 64 and a millionaire, Grillo began Five Star as an online protest movement against traditional politicians and the financial community. Soon, his blog had more than 200,000 hits a day and a new cause was born.

Much like fellow comic Al Franken when he won a Senate seat in Minnesota in 2008, Grillo demonstrated what a showman could do in politics. During the recent campaign in Sicily, Grillo drew crowds in the thousands at rallies and swam two miles from the mainland to the island to launch the campaign.

Just as the U.S. tea partyers insist they have no national leader, Grillo himself insists he is a spokesman rather than a leader of his movement. He would not become prime minister if Five Star emerges a winner in the national elections next year and that the party’s leader would be determined by an online vote of its members. In that sense, he might be hauntingly akin to another colorful leader of a grass-roots movement: Pierre Poujade, owner of a bookstore, who led his fellow shopkeepers in a protest against taxes aimed at them in France in the early 1950’s and saw his “Poujadist” movement mushroom into a force in national politics.

“Am I and my movement not in some sense the inheritors of all those who have throughout our history taken up their picks and pitchforks against the abuse of a centralized power and its tax regime?” declared Poujade. Although Poujadists won a considerable number of seats in parliament, its leader was so contemptuous of politics he refused to run for a seat himself-and that was his undoing. Soon his movement was bitterly split among its members who did win seats  — including the young Jean Marie LePen, famed today as a nationalist presidential candidate — and by the time the Fifth Republic came about under Charles DeGaulle in 1958, Poujadism and Poujade himself were yesterday’s news.

Whether Grillo and Five Star go down to that ending, or whether he has the last laugh after elections next year, is a story sure to attract the world’s interest in 2013.