23 Feb 2013

Commedia dell’ Vote: will charisma win Italy’s elections?

As Italians head to the polls to decide if the gaffe-prone, wise-cracking Silvio Berlusconi should get another term as prime minister, Channel 4 News asks if charisma will be key?

Commedia dell' Vote: Italian's head to the polls (pictures: Getty)

When Mr Berlusconi resigned his position at the end of 2011, amid sex and corruption scandals, he was replaced by a man deemed by many to be his polar opposite – Mario Monti, the technocrat centrist and sensible face of Italian politics.

But as Italians go to the polls on the 24 and 25 February, can they vote for a “straight man” or will they flock towards a charismatic comedian?

You can’t even tell what colour his (Berlusconi’s) hair is, it looks like a dead cat. Beppe Grillo

One man who will be hoping for the latter is Italian comic turned politician, Beppe Grillo (pictured, below), whose meteoric rise as leader of the Five Star Movement has stunned his opponents.

According to polls, Grillo’s party is the third most popular in Italy, behind Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party, in second, and Pier Luigi Bersani’s Democratic Party – currently favourite to succeed in the national elections.

Beppe Grillo of the Five Star Movement (picture: Getty)

For his part Grillo has labelled Mario Monti “Rigor Montis”, saying Italy’s caretaker leader represents the interests of the banks over the interests of citizens.

The 63-year-old, who made his name as a stand-up comedian in Genoa, is equally scathing about Berlusconi. “Berlusconi is like the bonnet of a car with this yellow hair. Well, now you can’t even tell what colour his hair is – it looks like a dead cat,” he told a crowd at one rally.

In local elections in May last year, Grillo’s Five Star Movement won control of the northern Italian city of Parma, as well as several smaller towns. His success has been linked to a loss of faith in the traditional parties, labelled by Grillo as “zombies”, as the eurozone debt crisis condemns citizens to austerity.

Go and convince the undecided. Go and convince those to whom you need to give some of your faith, some of your enthusiasm, a little bit of your passion. Silvio Berlusconi

Grillo, who rails against corruption and ineptitude, and who says Italy should quit the euro, also employs visual gags to make his point. In 2011 he carried a huge net of mussels through the streets of Rome and dumped them outside the parliament, saying the politicians inside were no better than the shellfish, stuck to their seats of power and operating in murky waters.

The extent to which he has embraced the internet, particularly with his popular blog and Twitter, has also set him apart from his rivals. However, his anti-political movement has been criticised for being light on policy and for the direct and violent language he uses (he organises f*** days to protest against the establishment.)

However, and despite his growing support, Grillo trails behind Bersani by 19 percentage points and Berlusconi by 13 percentage points, as of the final polls before a pre-election blackout a two weeks ago.

Silvio Berlusconi (picture: Getty)

Berlusconi (pictured, above), renowned for various gaffes – from thrusting behind a police woman to referring to Barack Obama as “sun-tanned” – has been on a charm offensive in the run-up to the election.

His rallies have including jokes about his own resignation, imitations of Bersani’s accent and delivering great rallying calls to jubilant fans.

“So, are you ready for this mission?” he asked at one rally. “Ideally I would tap your right shoulders with a sword, because the left, obviously, I couldn’t, and thus pronounce you all missionaries of democracy, truth and liberty.

“Go and convince the undecided. Go and convince those to whom you need to give some of your faith, some of your enthusiasm, a little bit of your passion.

“Thank you. Long live Italy, go Italy, long live the beautiful People of Freedom Party.”

Berlusconi has also promised tax refunds to Italian families, and spouts anti-German rhetoric popular with the disenfranchised from Europe’s austerity measures.

Pier Luigi Bersani (picture: Getty)

However, it is Bersani, described as “unflashy” and “not particularly radical or imaginative”, who is currently in the lead.

Berlusconi’s charm offensive has closed the gap, but it is a man who appears to revel in a “prosaic” self-image who currently tops the polls.

He backed Monti’s caretaker leadership, and both men have launched their most stinging political attacks on Berlusconi rather than each other, mocking the “bunga bunga” leader for his claims on jobs and tax.

There has also been speculation of a deal between the men following the outcome of the election – something Bersani would need to do to take control of Italy’s upper house, if he takes control of the lower.

If such a deal exists, or comes into existence, then perhaps it will be straight men, not the comedians, who prosper at Italy’s elections.

But with recent polls also showing that a third of Italians are yet to make up there minds on who to vote for, perhaps charisma still has a role to play.