Beppe Grillo: the funny (or foolish?) Five Star leader

Comedian turned founder of the Five Star party Beppe Grillo isn't looking so funny for many now that his party is gaining in the Italian polls.

Ahead of last weekend's referendum,the comedian turned founder of the Five Star Movement (M5S), Beppe Grillo, urged Italians to vote "with your gut, not your brain". They duly obliged,says The Times, sweeping away Matteo Renzi's government with the same "anti-establishment fervour unleashed by Brexit voters in the UK and Donald Trump supporters in the US". The result takes Grillo who has rattled EU leaders by calling for Italy to drop the euro "one step closer to power". The question is, does he really want it?

Grillo, 68, founded the maverick party, now Italy's second largest, in 2009 after capitalising on his "show-business bravado" to promote a reactionary movement spanning both the left and right of politics, says CNN. Yet he's always maintained that "he has no ambition to be prime minister".

The oft-cited impediment is his conviction for manslaughter following an accident in 1981, when a car he was driving plunged into a ravine, killing three passengers (Five Star rules prohibit those with criminal convictions from assuming office). But in an interview with the Financial Times last year, Grillo denied this was the reason. "I don't have any desire to participate in professional political life," he said. "It's not in my nature."

Until recently, most would have agreed that Grillo's rumbustious temperament would rule him out for high office. He once, after all, rallied 80,000 people to a protest meeting called "V-day", in which the V stood for vaffanculo, the Italian equivalent of "f**k off".

Grillo's taste for profanity seems almost quaint in an era when the new head of the free world can boast of his prowess at groping women. Less easy to shrug off, says The Guardian, is "a suicide-bomber jibe" that Grillo made in the summer about newly elected London mayor Sadiq Khan, which was seized upon by opponents as evidence that M5S is not fit for power.

It certainly showed that Grillo who rose to fame skewering corrupt politicians "is losing his instinct for what is funny and what is foolish", says Tony Barber in the FT. He sounded like "a man exhausted with public life and increasingly out of touch". Still, the election of M5S candidate Virginia Raggi as mayor of Rome and now this week's poll have given the lie to the theory that he might jeopardise Five Star's mission to emerge as an electorally credible party.

Largely thanks to other senior figures in the party, notably 30-year-old Luigi Di Maio, what began as a grass-roots protest movement has matured. Of late, M5S has been playing down its iconoclastic side and emphasising policy proposals, such as universal income support for the poor and tax cuts for small businesses.

Indeed, according to Vincenzo Scarpetta, an analyst at the Open Europe think-tank, Di Maio is the most "obvious name" to emerge as the party's eventual leader and a possible future Italian PM. Will Grillo really be willing to stand aside for this younger Grillino? We must wait and see.

Three men who could shape the world in 2017

Mike Pence

During his first run for Congress in 1988, US vice-president elect Mike Pence rode a push-bike across his home state of Indiana to meet voters, says The New York Times. "He lost." It illustrates what a study in opposites the new vice president is to the larger-than-life persona of Donald Trump. An evangelical Christian, who made his name as a deeply socially conservative radio commentator, Pence retains a "small-town personality", once declaring that "to avoid temptation, he would never appear anywhere alcohol was served unless his wife was with him".

Pence may be low-key but, unlike Trump, he knows his way around the Washington labyrinth and is in a strong position "to shape the Trump administration from within", says The Spectator. At 57, he also has age and "an untarnished personal record" on his side. An upset of any sort could see him emerge as the "dynamic half of Washington's strange new duo".

Wolfgang Schuble

Angela Merkel's finance minister has arguably done more to shape contemporary Germany and Europe than anyone else currently in office. A trained lawyer, Schuble crafted Germany's treaty of reunification in 1989-1990 for Helmut Kohl shortly after surviving an assassination attempt that left him paralysed from the waist down. Present at the euro's birth at Maastricht in 1992, he has latterly been at the centre of attempts to save it becoming characterised as Germany's "bad cop".

Schuble's weakness is that he has lacked "the absolute will for power at the decisive moments", notes the Frankfurter Allgemeine. And some believe that, at 74, he hasn't the energy to replace Merkel. Yet, given the vacuum of other contenders, he remains the most likely candidate if she's ousted next year, says Time: "a fiscal hawk whose standoffish demeanour would do little to boost EU solidarity".

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Iran's hardline spiritual leader has taken a back seat in the country's re-emergence on the world stage following the nuclear compromise struck by President Hassan Rouhani. Yet Khamenei remains Iran's highest authority, says Foreign Affairs, and "his views are what will ultimately shape Iranian policy". The evidence suggests they haven't changed much. Khamenei recently lambasted America's moral deficiencies, pronouncing that "death to America means death to a system which has nothing to do with humanitarian values".

The election of Donald Trump as president can only exacerbate tensions, given his denunciation of Obama's "appeasement" of an aggressive Iran. If Trump ditches what he has called "the stupidest deal of all times" and redoubles sanctions, the ramifications for Middle East geopolitics and energy markets will be profound.

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