Meet Italy's Al Franken

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.”

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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