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Will Italy’s Clowns Share the Fate of Germany’s Pirates?

Italian comedian Beppe Grillo became the world’s least likely political leader this year when his Five Star Movement rode a wave of public discontent with the country’s political class to a strong showing in Italy’s general election. After winning 25 percent of the vote, Grillo will now become a key player in Italian politics as his party shifts its focus from campaigning to governing.

One year before anyone outside of Italy knew Grillo’s name, another European party rode a similar wave of discontent to surprise political success: Germany’s Pirate Party, which did well enough to enter numerous state governments and has enjoyed support as high as 13 percent in some opinion polls. After these early successes, the Pirates were riding high, looking to improve their organization and spreading the word about pirate politics to other European countries. But the pirates have not managed the transition from outsiders to legislators very well, and have spent the last year racked with pretty infighting as support rapidly dwindles. Der Spiegel reports:

Hardly a week goes by without a brutal and public personal attack made by one Pirate Party member against another.

Party head Bernd Schlömer has led the way on that front when it comes to Ponader. At different times he’s said that his colleague was on an “ego trip” and “uncooperative,” and recommended that the freelance theater director and actor, who was once an enthusiastic recipient of welfare benefits, should “get a job.”

Still, other top resignations in recent months have done little to stem the flow of bile between top Pirate Party members — to the point that the public has lost track of what they stand for. In the country’s most recent state election in Lower Saxony, held in January, the party received just 2.1 percent of the vote, a dramatic drop after a year of success in other states.

It’s too early to say that Grillo’s Five Star Movement will face a similar fate, but it should serve as a reminder that outsider movements like his face a serious challenge if they want to survive past one election cycle. Campaigning on discontent with a dysfunctional political system is easy: Doing the organization necessary to change it from within is requires considerably more political savvy. Unless Grillo can figure out, his movement next year may look much like Germany’s Pirates do today.

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