Send in the Clowns

Article excerpt

Byline: Barbie Latza Nadeau

The Italian election--once more the theater of the absurd.

Every Sunday morning, Italian children gather at the famous open-air puppet show, the Teatrino di Pulcinella on the Janiculum Hill high above the historical center of Rome to watch the Italian Punch and Judy equivalents beat each other senseless for no apparent reason.

It isn't easy to match the random silliness of the screaming puppets, but lately Italy's politicians have been doing just that.

On February 24 and 25, Italian voters go to the polls to choose their next leader. But rather than a serious electoral ballot, the list of characters seems drawn from a playbill advertising the theater of the absurd.

And perhaps that explains the apathy of the Italians. With just a few days to go before the election, more than one third of voters say they're still undecided, leading observers to speculate about the likelihood of a runoff election. Italy is rudderless, yet again.

"It comes down to populism versus realism," says Federigo Argentieri, professor of political science at the John Cabot University in Rome. "Few," he adds, "offer great solutions to the problems of this country."

Italy has been without a democratically elected leader since November 2011, when then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was forced to resign amid a hurricane of financial and sex scandals. Since then, the 76-year-old billionaire has been convicted of tax evasion and has been fighting charges in a tawdry underage prostitution trial in which he's alleged to have paid a 17-year-old Moroccan belly dancer for sex on no less than 13 occasions. The verdict in that trial will come in the weeks after the election. If convicted, Berlusconi has vowed to appeal.

Berlusconi has campaigned with classic wink-and-nudge insouciance, promising voters everything from free private school for their kids to reimbursement of the pesky property taxes they've had to pay in his absence. Some even speculate that hiring famous footballer Mario Balotelli to his AC Milan club was a ploy to win the soccer vote. The newspaper La Stampa estimates that Balotelli, who will make his AC Milan debut on the first day of voting, is expected to win Berlusconi some 40,000 votes. "Berlusconi's Italy is one where the rules are flexible," says political analyst James Walston, who teaches at the American University of Rome. "Serious or not, Berlusconi appeals to a type of voter he knows well." In the most recent polls, Berlusconi's center-right party, aligned again with their xenophobic separatist frenemies of the Northern League, were projected to win almost a third of the votes.

But Berlusconi is not the only joker on the campaign trail. Comedian Beppe Grillo is the real stooge of this electoral season. His cultlike following is far more threatening to Italy's stability than Berlusconi's gaffe-prone rhetoric. The 64-year-old stand-up comic, who idolizes 17th-century English rebel Guy Fawkes, whose sneering mask adorns Grillo's campaign camper, has won the support of Italy's protest set, who see him as a way into Parliament. No one on his electoral list has ever held a seat in Parliament. Even so, Grillo has managed to attract an impressive following with his Five Star Movement, which is not a political party per se, even though it certainly acts like one. He has mastered the usefulness of social media more than any other candidate on the trail, and his blog has the largest online following of any site--political or not--in Italy. Grillo became a pop cult icon when he launched "V-Day" protests in 2007 (the V is for vaffanculo, or f--k off) meant to send a message to corrupt politicians, and the former comedian turns each political rally into a high-intensity stage act in which he plays the role of a psycho evangelist, swearing and screaming the ills of the nation. By the end of his tirades, he is puffed up like a blowfish, red-faced and sweaty, spewing anti-establishment propaganda ad hominem. …