Chaos as comedian threatens to pull Italy out of euro
Italy has plunged deeper into political chaos after Beppe Grillo, the quixotic former comedian who holds the balance of power in parliament, suggested the country may have to abandon the euro and return to the lira.
The rebel comic's warning came amid a growing rebellion among grassroots supporters of his Five Star Movement, with 150,000 signing a petition calling for him to begin dialogue with the centre-Left Democratic Party, the biggest force in parliament.
With the country in political paralysis, there were also questions over his eccentric behaviour, after the surreal public appearance of a man – either Mr Grillo or a supporter – with his face obscured by a zipped-up puffer jacket and a pair of ski goggles. The bizarre figure, resembling a human fly, waved at photographers from the deck of Mr Grillo's beach house at Marina di Bibbona on the coast of Tuscany.
In an interview with a German magazine, Mr Grillo warned that "if conditions do not change" Italy "will want" to leave the euro and return to the lira. The 64-year-old comic-turned-political activist also said Italy needed to renegotiate its €2trn debt. At 127pc of gross domestic product, it is the highest in the eurozone after Greece.
"Right now we are being crushed, not by the euro, but by our debt," he told 'Focus', a weekly news magazine. "When the interest payments reach €100bn a year, we're dead. There's no alternative."
He said Italy was in such dire economic straits that "in six months, we will no longer be able to pay pensions or the wages of public employees".
The comments will further hamper efforts to resolve the crisis caused by Italy's election last week, in which Mr Grillo's web-based, anti-establishment movement won more than a quarter of the votes.
He is refusing to contemplate any sort of power-sharing deal with the centre-Left Democratic Party, which has shaky control of the upper and lower houses of parliament but lacks a big enough majority to form a government.
In the interview, he said that an accord with the big parties would in theory be possible if they acceded to key parts of his movement's agenda, including limiting MPs' parliamentary service to two terms, an overhaul of the election system and the slashing of politicians' lavish perks.
"But they will never do that," he said. "They are trying to make us believe that they will, just to gain time."
Mr Grillo, renowned for his blistering attacks on Italy's established political caste, last week called Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the Democratic Party "a dead man talking".
He also predicted the annihilation of both the centre-Left and the centre-Right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi, the 76-year-old playboy who has been prime minister three times. They would be around for another "six months" but then they would be "finished", he said.
He insisted that his party would not take part in any "horse-trading". However, he faces a growing clamour among his grassroots supporters to talk to the Democratic Party to form some sort of government.
The three-way deadlock has raised fears about Italy's ability to maintain economic reforms initiated by Mario Monti, the former technocrat prime minister.
Mr Grillo said his movement would remain outside any government, voting on bills on a case-by-case basis.
Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that Mr Grillo refuses to talk to Italian journalists. Reporters who have telephoned him and asked to speak to the general secretary of the party claim he has told them: "Hang on, I'll just pass you to my 12-year-old son."
The new parliament has to meet by March 15 at the latest, after which formal talks with Giorgio Napolitano, the octogenarian Italian president, are scheduled to begin on the formation of a new government.
Within just three years, Mr Grillo's movement has come from nowhere to place him in the role of kingmaker. During the election campaign, he travelled around Italy in a camper van, filling piazzas with supporters.
Among them is Dario Fo, the prominent 86-year-old playwright. He said yesterday: "Satire can uncover big ideas and bring about huge upheavals. Beppe Grillo is a man of satire – that's where he came from, and that is his strength."
Mr Grillo's success means his party is poised to send more than 160 members into parliament's two chambers. Many are in their twenties and thirties, and few have any political experience, raising fears of legislative chaos if a government is formed.
Critics say they will be clueless in parliament and that their reliance on internet-based democracy to determine policies will be a recipe for disaster.
The movement's policies include tax cuts, increased health spending and investment in the "green economy", but it has struggled to explain how this will be paid for.
Italians are divided as to whether the movement promises fresh blood or political and economic disaster. (© Daily Telegraph, London)