Italy Braces for Comedian's 'Unstoppable Epidemic'
Assistant News Editor, CNBC.com
Italy's mainstream politicians have failed to understand a change in mentality in Italy, the head of the anti-establishment "5 Star Movement" (M5S) told CNBC in an interview, adding that his party is now "unstoppable".
"They're now out of the game, they belong to history…These parties are like old actors acting before an empty theater. They're the past, in six months we will not even remember them," Beppe Grillo said of his opponents in this weekend's elections.
With thirty percent of voters still undecided, the straight-talking, shaggy-haired comedian's movement has gained momentum, and poses a viable challenge to the front runners just days before Italians vote.
An estimated 70,000 to 100,000 people attended a rally fronted by former lawyer on Tuesday evening in Milan. Grillo held a similar outdoor rally in Turin last weekend that drew 30,000 people, more than those attending a similar indoor rally for the former premier Berlusconi, Reuters reported.
Grillo, whose party has campaigned on anti-austerity, anti-European and anti-euro membership, could be mopping up not only the protest vote but also votes from those unconvinced by center-right Silvio Berlusconi and center left Pier Luigi Bersani.
"This movement is now unstoppable, it's an epidemic," Beppe Grillo told CNBC on Tuesday, saying the other parties had failed to understand the changing zeitgeist in Italy.
"We have to rebuild this country from scratch and to do that we need the old political class to leave. In peace, because we are a constitutional and pacifist movement composed by law abiding citizens, so they should just give up," he added.
(Read More: Protest Vote in Italy Could Throw Up Big Surprise)
Revolution in the Air?
The 5 Star Movement started as a grass-roots Internet-led campaign with Grillo's online blogs- in which he ranted again establishment parties and politicians – gaining popularity. Rather than focus on TV coverage, Grillo has used a camper van to travel around the country to rally support for his movement.
"Fringe" parties like M5S have grown in popularity as financial scandals have exposed the close ties between the banking, business and political establishment. An increasing number of analysts has warned in recent weeks that the "protest vote" in Italy was gaining ground and could upset a clear victory for the mainstream parties. They have cautioned that a hung parliament could create political and economic instability.
On Tuesday evening, during a debate between media magnate Berlusconi and Bersani on La7, an independent TV channel, Bersani said he would be prepared to form a coalition with Grillo. But Grillo told CNBC he has "no intention" of forming a coalition with any of his opponents. "We have our own program, we'll tip the scales…They'll be the ones forced, if they're still there, to follow our ideas," he said.
(Read More: Is Berlusconi Getting a Bounce From Tax Evaders?)
In regional elections last year, M5S managed to shock political analysts by beating off the opposition, winning more seats than any other party in Sicily and growing in followers since then, a phenomenon Grillo likened to a virus.
"This is a movement that has become a community. Italy must become this, must feel like a community," Grillo said. "It's a movement of civility, of the future, it's a dream, it's utopic realism, it's epidemic, you must see this movement like a virus."
If he didn't win the election on February 24 and 25, another election would be called in the coming months, he said.
"[It's] only a matter of time. Either they give up now or they give up in six months, one year at most. No government can rule a country in ruins, and most certainly those who reduced it to ruins cannot be allowed to govern it," he said. Grillo says he is no more than a spokesman for his movement. A manslaughter conviction after a driving offense in the 1980s prevents him from holding public office, and by his own rules he can't "lead" the party.
House of Cards
Grillo's policies on the economy are opaque, however. He has said he wants Italy to quit the euro and reverse austerity measures, without clear policies on how to reduce the country's burgeoning debt pile.
Grillo defended his economic plan, however, saying that it was designed by "thousands of people".
"Our economic plan was designed by Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, together with normal people, economics professors that are online," he said, adding that he was not anti-Europe.
(Read More: Italy Elections Could Derail Europe Further)
"I'm for another Europe because this one has failed. [It] has failed by launching a single currency for different economies, and brought instability and crisis to a number of countries. We support another idea of Europe, [but] the problem here is debt. We have debt amounting to 2 trillion euros, for which we pay each year 100 billion in interest only," he said.
Grillo's call to arms for more market transparency, corporate governance and a change in Italian political character has found favor with many Italians.
""This country is falling down like a house of cards. Monte dei Paschi di Siena is the biggest financial scandal in the history of the republic. Everyone from the upper echelons of government is involved, all political parties are involved. They've tried to cover it up with misleading information, misleading news. In this country the media has colluded with the government," he said.