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Beppe Grillo has wiped the smile off the face of the European elite argues Jo Franks

Beppe Grillo

The vote that Europe's political elite were most dreading duly began to arrive at around 4pm on Tuesday. A vote against the establishment, a vote against Brussels, a vote against austerity - and also a vote for change.

The headlines are all about Silvio Berlusconi and his comeback. Yes, the old rogue is still alive politically, largely because he still has a real political base in Lombardy and parts of the south, but also because of the swingeing property tax imposed by the outgoing regime, which penalises many people who don't have the ready cash to pay. Berlusconi in typical demagogic style promised to repeal the law, and it looks as if he will have the voting power to block any tax-raising measures a new government might want to impose. Assuming a new government can be formed.

But the real story of the Italian election is the overwhelming majority against austerity and the sense of frustration with the established opposition revealed by the colossal vote for the Movimento Cinque Stelle. Mathematically both Berlusconi and Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the Partito Democratico, can claim some success. Politically it is an earthquake.

The PD still polled strongly in the heartlands of the left such as Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, but its overall vote was 29.5% compared to 37.6% in 2008. Berlusconi's bloc received 29.2% of the vote. Five years ago they had 46.8%.

Fundamental shift

Giorgio Cremaschi, former president of the engineering union FIOM and now part of the left opposition in the CGIL, Italy's largest union, sees it as a fundamental shift.

"You might have imagined from the protestations of the regime that the Italian people were passively prepared to vote as directed by the European Troika that's imposing its dictatorship in Greece.

"And instead they're in the minority. Both Berlusconi and Bersani who are now claiming to have won something have received the worst votes in the history of their coalitions... All those who have governed in turn for the last 20 years, as well as those in charge for the last 13 months,. are now a minority within the electorate and within the country."

It isn't difficult to understand why the PD failed in this election. They failed to campaign against the Monti administration when it took office, accepting the logic of austerity even if disliking its implications. There was no mobilisation against the savage cuts in health care, the tax increases, the cuts in regional funds, the huge rail fare increases or the wave of sackings - 600,000 in the space of nine months. Their election propaganda was full of worthy sentiments about justice and civic rights but promised virtually nothing.

Reading their election leaflet the only specific commitments were to legal recognition for homosexual couples and the right to citizenship for the children of immigrants. Both long overdue reforms but of no great practical help to those facing austerity and above all costing nothing. There were also vague promises of tax incentives for working mothers and a better deal for university teachers Beyond that, waffle.

Going into the election the PD still had a healthy lead over Berlusconi and his allies, but they ran the most lacklustre campaign imaginable, intent on respectability and the eventual deal with the outgoing administration that the markets wanted. And while refraining from any frontal attack on Berlusconi they seemed almost unaware of the momentum behind Beppe Grillo and the Cinque Stelle.

Grillo himself is a TV comic - not a specially good one, but then there's no accounting for taste. Some people enjoy Benny Hill or Ben Elton. However, as a demagogue he's top-notch. He knows how to play a big crowd, he knows how and when to push the right buttons, and above all he has the anger and the rhetoric to connect with people who are sickened by the way the country has been run.

Grillo and the Cinque Stelle

"Populism" is the word being used to describe Grillo and the Cinque Stelle, the sort of condescending label that tells you very little - though it's an improvement on the Guardian's description of them as "irrelevant", which must surely rank as one of the more grotesque political miscalculations of recent times, even by that newspaper's standards. In fact the movement is more like an amalgam of campaigns, many of them civic or environmental. And it's rooted in opposition to the corruption and cronyism endemic in much of Italian political life.

The origins are local and its roots are in local activity. Back in 2009 in Florence there was the first national meeting of Comuni a Cinque Stelle (roughly translatable as Five-Star Councils) aimed at linking up local campaigns for proper public water supply, sanitation, control of building, clean energy and so on. Basic issues which united people across the usual party boundaries. You could describe it as a movement of active citizenship, but also as a sort of coalition of resistance.

Among the main speakers at that Florence conference was Laura Pizzotti, a teacher from Nettuno, a seaside town near Rome. Two years later she was one of the main campaigners for a referendum against water privatisation.

Italy has periodic referendums, by popular demand. You need 500,000 signatures to have one and when they are held at least 50% of the electorate has to vote. Usually that quorum is not met, especially in recent years. The peculiarity of the 2011 referendums on water, nuclear power and parliamentary immunity from criminal prosecution was that they all achieved the quorum and all produced overwhelming votes - against privatisation, against nukes, and against parliamentary immunity.

Laura Pizzotti is an activist, not a star. And in that she seems typical of those who will now enter parliament on the back of an extraordinary 25.6% vote for the Movement. A lot of them are women: 25 of the 54 senators. Seventeen of their 31 regional lists of candidates were headed by women, among them Laura Bottici an unemployed secretary from Carrara in Tuscany.

"We are a movement of citizens," she told an interviewer a few days before the election. "We are not Beppe Grillo. Beppe Grillo is our megaphone. We're not going to Parliament for what I want but what the citizens want. We need to provide the financial aid and credit to smaller businesses to relaunch the economy, and then focus on sectors such as tourism and education to create more jobs."

The question now is how the diverse elements within Cinque Stelle will respond to the challenge, and especially the overtures of the PD. Some of their people are definitely on the left - others conservative or "anti-political".

A growing rebellion

Italy has a strange history of "anti-political" movements, for example the Fronte del Uomo Qualunque - Front of the Common Man - which emerged in 1946 and was coincidentally the brainchild of another comic, Guglielmo Giannini, who published a mass circulation paper of the same name. Giannini flirted with the right and the left and his party rapidly disappeared into obscurity.

Cinque Stelle looks very different, not least because it has tapped a mood of anger and resistance and a desire for change. It is also far bigger (FUQ had around 5% of the vote). But such movements can swing in different directions, and also collapse.

"We are in a systemic crisis that the old policies and the old line-ups can only make worse," says Giorgio Cremaschi. "It's to be hoped that Cinque Stelle are aware their success is not a definitive choice nor a mandate, but is both a sign and a result of the rebellion which is growing throughout Europe and has finally begun here as well."

The question is whether the activists of the PD and the far left, who share much common ground with many of those who voted for Cinque Stelle, can make that connection in practice.

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