Connect to share and comment

Meet Italy's Al Franken

Beppe Grillo, a comedian and blogger, wants to lead Italy's opposition.

Beppe Grillo speaks at a rally. (Mario Bucchich)

Update: On July 23 Grillo was denied his name on the ballot, and said he won't appeal.

ROME — Shaggy haired, vulgar and notoriously independent, Beppe Grillo is far from the typical image of an Italian politician.

Yet here he is, taking on a political establishment populated by well connected old men in double-breasted suits who came to power only after meticulously working their way up through their parties' hierarchies.

There’s no indication that Grillo, a highly successful comic-turned-blogger, has any plans to start wearing a coat and tie and get a haircut and a shave. Rather, he is taking advantage of his renegade image as he joins the politicians he once lampooned from the sidelines.

Grillo has taken steps to join Italy’s opposition Partito Democratico (PD) and said he wants to run for the party’s general secretary. 

Not surprisingly, the party says it doesn’t want him.

The PD was formed in 2007 by merging eight left wing and centrist parties, in part to form a more united opposition to media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s controversial prime minister. But despite Berlusconi’s troubles (he is the central figure in a sex scandal, for example, and on his watch Italy’s economic growth has grinded to a halt), the PD has seen its share of the Italian electorate dwindle in every election since its creation.

Grillo announced plans to run to become the party’s secretary in his popular blog, immediately drawing the support of tens of thousands of young supporters while also attracting scorn from the PD leadership.

Since then, the party has refused Grillo’s application for membership because he submitted his application in the wrong city. It also argued that jokes he’s made about the Italian left in the past proved he was “hostile” toward the PD’s ideals. Venice mayor Massimo Cacciari, a powerful party figure, has said a Grillo candidacy would “smear” the party’s name.

Voters, however, appear to disagree. According to Maria Rossi, co-director of the polling firm Opinioni, the prospect of Grillo’s involvement in the party has sparked a surge in interest among party members.

“It’s still too early to say what his support would be in the vote, though it would probably be strong given Grillo’s popularity,” Rossi said. “But it’s significant to note that since Grillo has starting talking about the position the number of people who answered ‘don’t care’ when asked about who becomes the next PD secretary has dropped from around 1 in 5 to almost zero.”