Last year, opinion polls showed support for Grillo’s movement hovering below 4 percent. But as he fills the political vacuum here, more recent surveys suggest that almost one in five Italians now back it, placing his movement only single digits behind the nation’s two leading parties in popularity. He is touting his Italy-first revolution from open piazzas across the nation, drawing inevitable comparisons to Benito Mussolini. But Grillo, whose left-leaning anti-corruption message more closely mirrors that of American liberal Michael Moore, says those who accuse him of echoing Il Duce are missing the point.
“They are calling me a populist, calling us Nazis, calling me Hitler, but they do not understand,” he said in an interview. “What is happening is that our movement is filling a similar space as the Nazis did in Germany or [nationalist Marine] Le Pen has in France. But we are nothing like them. We are moderate, beautiful people, and we are the only thing left standing between Italy and the real extremists.”
In populist company
Mired in debt, locked in a cycle of austerity and confronting a crisis of leadership, parts of Europe are facing a period of economic and political upheaval that some liken to the disenchantment of the 1930s, when the Nazis rose to power. Across the region, unconventional and unpredictable political forces are taking root. On the streets of broken Greece, the right-wing pseudo-militias of the Golden Dawn organization are menacing immigrants, racial minorities and political opponents. In Austria, the 80-year-old anti-euro billionaire Frank Stronach has 10 percent support in the polls despite not even having launched an official party. Over the past year in France and Finland, nationalists have posted their strongest election results ever.
But here in Italy, Grillo’s core followers are anything but a mob of Il Duce-loving extremists. Rather, his movement began in the mid-2000s as a group of netizens linked by social media and united by a shared disgust with Italian political elites, including chauffeur-driven lawmakers with criminal records and CEO-level compensation. Nevertheless, pundits see his rise as underscoring the political uncertainty in Italy that is quickly becoming one of the biggest wild cards of the European debt crisis.
In a nation that — unlike Greece — is considered too big to fail, last year’s emergency appointment of Monti, a technocrat and former university president, to take over for the sullied playboy Silvio Berlusconi was seen as Europe’s saving grace. Just as Italy was falling off a cliff, Monti forced through tough austerity measures that reassured investors and pulled Rome back from the brink.