New media drives Italy politico

Maverick is top vote-getter in election that has no clear winner

ROME — Last week, Italians rekindled their love affair with show bizzers-turned-pols in inconclusive elections that saw comedian-turned-Web-activist Beppe Grillo win more votes than any other single party and TV mogul Silvio Berlusconi make a stunning political return.

While neither has a majority, they make Italy perhaps a unique laboratory to observe the intersection of politics and showbiz driven by old and new media.

Berlusconi rose from the political graveyard riding an Italian TV blitz — 63 hours of television appearances in 21 days, roughly half on his Mediaset channels.

The bear-like Grillo, who was banned from Italo TV in the 1980s for calling then-prime minister Bettino Craxi a thief, shunned the tube, and used his blog and Twitter and Facebook accounts — combined with massive old-fashioned rallies in his “Tsunami tour” of the country’s piazzas — to propagate his anti-establishment message, which struck a deep chord.

Grillo, 64, has been compared to Michael Moore politically, but with the physicality of John Belushi. He became a fixture on pubcaster RAI in the 1970s, until his act became increasingly political as Italy became more corrupt.

Grillo’s so-called Five Star movement is an outgrowth of his blog, which he has used, since 2005, to rail against political and corporate corruption, and campaign for clean energy. He has become the politician with the largest social media following in Europe, according to British media analyst Jamie Bartlett, who considers Grillo a pioneer of such politics.

“For a long time, political scientists have predicted that the Internet would lead to the decline of formal political parties — and Beppe Grillo is showing how,” Bartlett wrote in the Guardian.

In terms of electoral results, Grillo went from polling at 5% nationally nine months ago to gaining more than 25% of the vote held Feb. 24 and 25. These elections have generated the youngest parliament (average age: 48) in Italy’s history.

“It’s kind of like ‘Alien,’ ” says Huffington Post Italia editor-in-chief Lucia Annunziata. “There was a monster among us, but nobody in the political world wanted to believe it.”

Underscoring the enduring power of TV, Berlusconi and members of his center-right coalition also bested pollster predictions, together garnering roughly 30% of the vote, about 1% less than the center-left bloc headed by Pier Luigi Bersani, who does not have enough seats in the upper house to govern alone.

Bersani will likely be asked to try and form a government, but Grillo has said he won’t support him. However, Berlusconi has said he will support Bersani in the interest of economic stability, and may strike a temporary truce before going back to the polls soon.

Ironically, Italy has long lagged behind most of Europe in terms of broadband speed, a gap that Annunziata and others attribute to a deliberate political choice meant to shield Berlusconi’s Mediaset TV empire from erosion caused by new media. In 2008, the Berlusconi government blocked plans to invest €800 million ($1.1 billion) to improve Web streaming in Italy.

The enduring link between Berlusconi’s political clout and Mediaset’s balance sheet is underscored by the fact that despite posting losses late last year for the first time in 17 years, its stock price has been rising ever since Berlusconi threw his hat back in the political ring in December.

So it’s not surprising that topping Grillo’s agenda is a conflict-of-interest law that would force Berlusconi, whom Grillo calls “the psycho dwarf,” to either put Mediaset in a blind trust or leave politics.

Also high up on Grillo’s wish list: free high-speed Internet for all Italians. The takeaway: Old media (TV) and new (the Web) were used with great success in the Italian elections, enabling Silvio Berlusconi’s comeback and Beppe Grillo’s debut.

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