Italian lawmakers aren’t laughing at comic’s petition drive

[19 September 2007]

By Christine Spolar

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

ROME—Beppe Grillo usually leaves `em laughing. But the mop-haired comedian’s latest ribald attack on the political elite in Italy—a Web-based, hip-hop campaign demanding an end to the excesses of Parliament members—threatens to spark a no-nonsense revolt.

Grillo is the man behind a political comeuppance dubbed “V-Day,” code in Italian for an emphatic and vulgar directive to the ruling class.

“I like the V,” Grillo said jovially during a recent phone interview. “It can stand for victory and vendetta. So I told my team: Whenever you see a politician or you go on TV, do the V sign with your fingers. The (politicians) will think you mean victory, but we know exactly what it really means!”

Grillo has skewered political titans in the past—his televised tweaking in 1987 of Socialist leader Bettino Craxi effectively barred him from the airwaves—but this time he is offering much more than bombast. Grillo is talking, through his popular Web site and on stage, about serious change: 10-year term limits for lawmakers, direct elections for deputies in Parliament and, most forcefully, rousting from the halls of power any lawmaker convicted of a crime or facing trial.

To his surprise, and that of some lawmakers, Grillo has attracted a national following of people fed up with Italy’s infamous brand of politics.

In one day of petitioning early this month in 230 cities, more than 330,000 people—enough to bring the issue before Parliament—signed their names to his proposed reforms. Grillo had dubbed the V-Day signature drive “the Woodstock of law and order,” but even he seemed stunned at the results.

“I’m trying to understand all the reaction myself,” he said, hoarse from a week of interviews, appearances and his nightclub shows. “It’s something that’s never happened before in Italy.”

Italy is a land where lawmaking comes with exquisite privilege. This summer, a book that revealed the untold benefits of political office became a resounding best seller. “La Casta”—“The Caste”—provides 245 pages of detail about “how Italian politicians have become untouchable.”

So far, 800,000 copies have been sold, and apparently readers also have bought the argument made by the two journalists from the Corriere della Sera newspaper that politicians in Italy live in an insular and pampered world. Or as Gian Antonio Stella, one of the writers, explained: “It’s not about ideology. Politics is a good way to gain social status and earn good money.”

“We didn’t want to focus on specific politicians but the politics,” Stella, a reporter for 30 years, said last week. “We concentrated on the moral dimension of what is going on here.”

Toward that end, Stella and co-author Sergio Rizzo offer a litany of self-aggrandizing largesse by the ruling class. Members of Parliament benefit from chauffeurs, deeply discounted air tickets and private tennis coaches at taxpayers’ expense. Lawmakers also rake in the highest salaries among European legislators.

Among Stella and Rizzo’s revelations, there is some dispute. “La Casta” states that 16 of Italy’s 630 lawmakers in the Chamber of Deputies are convicted felons. That figure, stunningly, may be too low.

Another recent book, “Honorable Men Wanted,” co-written by a group of political journalists, claims that almost 10 percent of Parliament members are either on trial, awaiting appeal or have been convicted. Grillo, for his part, says 25 members of Parliament have criminal pasts.

Politicians in question, including former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who faces charges in a corporate fraud case, have been noticeably mute and low-key about the challenges. Some long-timers in the political power grid seemed baffled by the dissent.

“What Grillo is doing—frankly, I’m not interested,” Pier Ferdinando Casini, leader of the Christian Democrats, said when asked by journalists about the reform effort. “As far as I’m concerned, one should not make popular decisions as far as politics are concerned in this country.”

Stella said his book’s runaway success was never expected.

“Maybe we have been the spark, or maybe both the spark and the fire,” he said. “What is clear is that we’re part of a phenomenon that is bigger than us. We wrote the book for a civic purpose. ... I think it has given many answers to all of those Italians who had questions about the government.”

Grillo’s campaign seems to have tapped the same public disaffection, Stella said. A poll this month in Stella’s newspaper indicated that 68 percent of voters view the government negatively.

“We don’t agree with Grillo entirely ... but he has highlighted an illness,” Stella said. “The main problem is that there are no politicians who are believed. You need a new political class without privilege, politicians who can talk to people and (politicians) who people find reliable.”

Grillo has gone further than either political reporter and has called for an end to all political parties, a bit of hyperbole that seems beyond reality in this conservative country.

Grillo said he began organizing his petition drive this summer when he sensed, as his Web site soared in popularity, that something not the least bit funny was stirring among the politically disenchanted.

The 59-year-old performer said that neither he nor the politicians had any notion about the strength and depth of the young, Web-savvy critics in Italian society.

“Go to my blog and you will understand what is happening,” Grillo said. “For hours, people are there talking about transport, energy, all the differences between Italy and other countries. ... And all of them are joined by the idea that they want proper politics and proper politicians.

“Politicians here are in office for 30 years. Many of them are over 70 years old. They talk about a new generation and new way of life but they don’t have any idea what is out there,” he said.

“These politicians don’t know the power of the Internet. They don’t even know how to use the Internet. For sure, these politicians don’t know where we are headed.”

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