The Vaffanculo Knight Rises


Former comedian turned politician Beppe Grillo is not joking around in his country’s upcoming election Sunday. Grillo started the 5 Star Movement and it has been gaining momentum the past several months. Speaking out against corruption and a weak economy, Grillo and his party seek significant change in the government.

Right-wing populism is alive and well in Italy.

Grillo’s 5 Star Movement gained momentum in October. He organized a protest to denounce a new electoral law. This law limits direct voting for parliamentary candidates and helps protect incumbents in national elections. At this protest outside the Pantheon, the former comedian wore a white blindfold the Wall Street Journal reported. “We are protesting blindfolded because this is how they want us – unable to see,” Grillo boasted to a raucous crowd.

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The ineffectiveness of Italy’s political class launched the 5 Star Movement to widespread popularity. On the heels of a feeble economic recovery and resentment towards establishment politicians, polls show a potential electoral victory for the 5 Star Movement. They could potentially emerge as Italy’s single biggest party. This would catapult them to a position of the senior partner in a coalition government to bring populist change to Italy.

Entrance Into Politics

Grillo’s rise was not meteoric. His first foray into politics was a blog in 2005. This blog exposed “corporate malfeasance and official corruption” the Wall Street Journal reported. The blog became one of the most popular in the country. He then launched a “Clean Parliament” campaign after learning that former politicians collected pensions in their 40s and enjoyed the benefits of ruling class nepotism. In September 2007, he organized an event to publicize the campaign that he dubbed V-Day, with “V” standing for vaffanculo, Italian for “f—k off.”

“The V-Day event represented a point of no return,” said Marco Canestrari, a communications consultant for Grillo.

The 5 Star Movement

5 Star Movement was founded in 2009. It achieved its first victory in 2012 when Grillo campaigned relentlessly across Sicily during regional elections. Grillo criticized members of Sicily’s regional assembly’s salary as the country suffered economically.   They were compensated nearly 15,000 euros monthly and eligible for a pension after four and a half years in office. This tapped into the anger that was sweeping Italy. Even worse, this wealthy compensation during a time when the Sicilian economy shrunk 5% between 2008 and 2012 with an 18% unemployment rate.

“We should be much angrier than the Greeks and the Spaniards,” he decried at one rally. “They don’t have politicians who steal. We have a political class who is eating the living flesh of this country.”

The group received almost double the number of votes polls predicted.

Unable to Run for Office

Grillo is not eligible to run for office. This is because of a manslaughter conviction stemming from a 1980 car accident. A car he was driving plunged into a ravine and killed three of his passengers (apparently, Italy does not have the Kennedy exception in their country). Yet he is recognized as a political force. As a result, when Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was seeking political support for his leftist agenda in 2014, he sought a meeting with Grillo.

“I am here to show you our utter indignation for what you represent, for the system you represent,” Grillo scolded him at the meeting.

As leader of the movement, Grillo shaped the organization to his values. Parliamentarians elected from his party must follow his rules. They are not allowed to participate in TV talk shows.  They must donate half their salaries to a fund that supported small-business owners in the country. Furthermore, the 5 Star Movement has forced politicians to abandon office rental deals laced with special interest groups bidding. This saved the country’s taxpayers 32 million Euros a year the group stated.

The group has much more ambitious goals but first it will wait for the election results on Sunday. With a focus on bettering the country, helping its citizens and removing corrupt politicians, Grillo could turn Italy around. Grillo is not the hero Italy deserves but he is the one the country needs right now. Beppe is a not-so-silent guardian. He is a vociferous protester. He is Beppe Grillo – the Vaffanculo Knight.