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Italy's election campaign has been dominated by an upstart comedian-turned-politician whose Five Star Movement is soaring in the polls. The movement is not expected to win in the weekend vote, but its strong presence in Parliament could be destabilizing and reignite the eurozone crisis.
Beppe Grillo is a standup comedian and the country's most popular blogger; 63 years old, with a mane of grey curly hair, he's hyperactive and foul-mouthed. His last name means "cricket," and he's the most charismatic politician in Italy today.
Grillo calls his campaign a tsunami tour — a tidal wave with which he intends to wipe out an entrenched, decades-old caste of aging politicians.
"We'll take back the country they've devoured," Grillo shouts during a rally. "Two generations, the lives of millions wasted — we have a right to payback. Their era is ending; their time is up."
Grillo's rallies across the country have attracted tens of thousands of people.
"Grillo tells the truth. He is the real Jiminy Cricket," said one woman who was interviewed by Italian TV in Turin. "It's so reassuring to listen to him."
'We Can't Go On Like This'
Grillo has been riding a wave of popular anger and fear. Italy is mired in double-digit recession and has undergone a year of painful budget cuts and tax increases. Unemployment and poverty are soaring. Citizens are fed up with widespread corruption and political patronage.
In less than a year, the Five Star Movement has risen from the political fringe to a full-fledged political force. Grillo's message is resonating across the country.
"I want Grillo to smash everything. Something has to happen. We can't go on like this," says Claudio Zampa, who runs a vegetable stand in Rome. "If we don't break up this political system now, it will be too late."
Grillo built his movement almost exclusively on the Web. Online primaries were held to choose candidates. Their average age is 42; all are untested. They include teachers, IT technicians and housewives. No one convicted of a criminal offense can run, which means Grillo will never enter Parliament; he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after a car crash that killed three people in the 1980s.
The Grillini, as party members are known, see themselves as post-ideological, with an emphasis on ecology, broad citizen participation and a referendum on whether Italy should stay in the eurozone.
The Five Star Movement, political scientist Roberto D'Alimonte says, has grown beyond its original Web component.
"Because it has become a protest movement of a mass dimension, now there are even people with no familiarity with the Web. They are attracted to Grillo because he represents a change, a radical change," D'Alimonte says.
Many pollsters say the movement could score as much as 20 percent and come in third, ahead of disgraced former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who, thanks to his dominant hold on TV networks, has emerged from the political graveyard in just a few weeks. Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party is a few points behind the front-running center-left Democratic Party. Caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti's centrist grouping is also in the mix.
The prospect of a large maverick grouping such as the Five Star Movement sends shivers through the political establishment and raises the specter of a paralyzed parliament.
Sociologist Lorenzo Mosca, who has closely studied the Five Star Movement, has concerns about the lack of transparency in the way candidates were chosen, about Grillo's summary expulsion of some dissident members, and about his flirtation with the far right.
And, Mosca says, no one really knows what the movement stands for.
"It's not very clear the agenda once they will be in Parliament, because they didn't say anything about this, and this is something that is missing in the electoral campaign," Mosca says.
But Grillo is riding a wave of growing anger and rejection of politics as usual.
"We will open up Parliament like a can of tuna fish," Grillo shouted this week. And he warned politicians to leave while there's still time, "as long as you have a chance," Grillo roared, "surrender, surrender to the Italian people."
It's clear that once in Parliament, the Grillini will dictate their conditions.