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Meet Italy's Al Franken

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

The deadline for official submissions for the secretary job is July 23, almost exactly three months before the October 25 vote. It is still possible Grillo will manage to get his name on the party’s ballot. If he does, odds are against him winning. And even if he did win, it would be unlikely that he could unite the tattered party enough for it to gain a nationwide majority. Were all that to happen, the comedian could become prime minister.

“It is an extreme long shot, but, in theory, yes, Grillo could become Italy’s prime minister,” said James Walston, an international relations expert at the American University of Rome and a frequent political commentator. “If that happened, it would really shake up Italy. I think it would shake up Europe.”

But it is not Grillo’s unkempt looks or the fact that his speech is peppered with curse words or the notion that he comes from show business that raises the most doubt about his prospects to become prime minister. Rather, it is that he is not the creation of the country’s political party machinery. Italian political leaders almost always work their way up through the party ladder and, once on top, then tend to stay there for decades blocking the arrival of new figures.

The last political figure to make it to the top of Italian politics without a party pedigree is one that would make most of Grillo’s supporters bristle.

“Look at Grillo: he has no political party, he’s a populist, he appeals to people’s hearts and guts,” Walston said in an interview. “In many ways, he’s a mirror image of Silvio Berlusconi.”

Aside from the political differences between the two men — Grillo is on the left, Berlusconi the right — the argument is a compelling one. Berlusconi, a billionaire businessman, rose to political prominence in 1994, forming a political party from nothing and calling it “Forza Italia!” (Go Italy!), a popular soccer cheer. Both men are engaging, self made and able to tap into Italian political angst. Berlusconi’s first government was short lived, but in a country that has averaged a new government nearly every year since World War II, Berlusconi has astonishingly led Italy for a total of six of the last eight years.

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