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An Italian general election result that is no joke

ITALIAN voters were left wondering whether to laugh or cry after the country's general election produced a stalemate and a 64-year old comedian took 25% of the vote.

Beppe Grillo had spoken of ripping open Italian politics "like a can of tuna" and that is just what he did. Senor Grillo eschewed television (largely owned and operated by his nemesis Silvio Berlusconi), preferring to use social media and village square meetings. Four years ago his Five Star Movement did not exist and nine months ago polls gave it just 5% of the vote.

The rise and rise of the Genovese stand-up comic, who campaigns against corruption and parliamentary privilege, underlines Italian voters' rejection of traditional politics. Five-Star candidates are younger and untainted by scandal. They talk of putting the citizen back at the centre of the democratic process and ridicule old parties and "jobs for the boys" politics. It is easy to understand why disillusioned Italians are attracted by his message. After years of austerity, he makes them smile.

However, for the markets and those who fear a resumption of the euro crisis, Grillo's triumph is no laughing matter. He rashly promised Italians a referendum on leaving the euro and even threatened temporary suspension of interest payments on government bonds, which risked reducing them to junk status. The markets, which only last week were nervous at the prospect of Silvio Berlusconi returning to power, now have much more to worry about. The temporary silver lining for the UK is that British gilts may look like a safer bet for investors, despite last week's downgrade. But it is in nobody's interests that Europe's third largest economy is now plunged into a fresh era of political uncertainty.

It would be wrong to dismiss Italy as a basket case. Some of its figures are enviable: it did not suffer from a housing bubble; its conservatively-run banks did not need to be bailed out; personal debt is lower than in the UK; the country runs a surprisingly small current account deficit.

However, the national debt is more than two trillion euros, which is 130% of GDP and represents more than 33,000 euros for every Italian. Its unemployment rate stands at 11% and more than a third of young people are jobless. And its growth and productivity figures are atrocious.

The gap between former communist Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the centre-left coalition, and Senor Berlusconi's right-inclined bloc is too wide to imagine a national unity government, so a minority government would have to rely on Beppe Grillo's deputies offering the left flexible support for measures they agree with, though an old manslaughter conviction will keep the Five-Star leader out of parliament.

It looks as if Italy has the unenviable choice between chaos and a second election. Nobody can condemn the voters for their contempt for Italy's old political elite but it is hard to tell whether this comedian-turned charismatic politician is a breath of fresh air or a disaster waiting to happen. Both perhaps.

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