By Gavin Jones
ROME, March 7 (Reuters) - Beppe Grillo stirs strong feelings. His supporters believe he can clean up Italian politics and give ordinary people more say in decision-making. His opponents see a dangerous populist who evokes memories of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
International media describe Grillo as a comic, which on one level he is, but the man who jointly created and leads the party that in just three years has become the largest in Italy is much more than that.
Behind his tirades against the political and business elite is a shrewd mind, a hugely influential alter ego and the desire to win complete power in the euro zone's third largest economy.
"The left and right will govern together on the ruins they've created, it will last a year at most, then our movement will change the world," Grillo said after his party's triumphant performance in last week's election.
Grillo has made all the headlines since the vote, but he is only half the story of his anti-establishment 5-Star Movement. Most of the strategy is decided by Gianroberto Casaleggio, an Internet expert who seldom appears in public.
"A single man in command is not democracy," said Pier Luigi Bersani after his Democratic Party (PD) was beaten into second place in the vote. "Behind Bersani is the PD, I want to know what is behind Grillo."
The answer is Casaleggio, and his Milan-based firm Casaleggio Associates whose business is to create websites and web-based marketing campaigns for clients.
The two men met in 2004 and the following year Casaleggio's company created Grillo's hugely successful blog. Casaleggio has been running Grillo's public activities ever since. They are joint founders of the 5-Star Movement.
In one of the best debut performances by any party in Western Europe since World War Two, 5-Star took 26 percent of the vote, outstripping the PD and Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom.
"Unless the other parties change their leaders and somehow get back in touch with ordinary people he can certainly keep on growing," said Elisabetta Gualmini, politics professor at the University of Bologna and a close observer of Grillo's movement.
DEMOCRAT OR DESPOT?
Grillo capitalised on popular despair over recession, unemployment and poverty with a campaign that convinced millions of Italians that he could offer them a break with the past.
"Grillo was the only one who gave any hope of change," said Matteo Schiavetti, 22, a student at Rome University.
Grillo and his mostly young followers present themselves as pioneers of a new, more egalitarian type of democracy, based on direct participation rather than delegation and hierarchies.
Yet his critics say he is more of a despot than a democrat. They point out that in practice Grillo not only controls the movement but owns it, having obtained the rights to its brand when he founded it with Casaleggio in 2009.
"The total dependence on Grillo is not sustainable, they will have to create a structure and he will have to allow mini-leaders to emerge or everything will implode," said Gualmini.
Grillo showed his iron grip last year when he expelled two local councillors who had criticised a lack of internal democracy and flouted the party rule not to appear on talk shows with rival politicians from the "old" parties.
"There is no transparency, Casaleggio created everything and the only structure is Casaleggio Associates," said Giovanni Favia, the councillor for the Emilia Romagna region who was thrown out of the party after falling out with Casaleggio.
Casaleggio, 59, with his unruly, shoulder length hair and round wire-framed glasses, is an ardent believer in the power of the Internet to transform the world and is often caricatured as a dreamy visionary (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCbjA-yVsRc).
But those who have met him say he is practical, single minded and determined. His hero is 13th century Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan and he has said his final goal is for Italy's parties to disappear altogether.
"I am on the streets and Casaleggio is on-line, they are interlinked roles and neither of us is leader," Grillo said in a book he published with Casaleggio last month.
Some commentators have compared Grillo to Mussolini, seeing similar personality cults, the same vitriolic attacks on opponents and their common rejection of traditional parties.
While most of Grillo's policies are light years away from those of the wartime dictator he, like Mussolini, possesses a rare charisma and an energy that belies his 64 years.
To launch his party's campaign for elections in Sicily last year he swam the Straits of Messina, a treacherous 3 km (2 mile) stretch of water that separates the island from mainland Italy.
Grillo and Casaleggio understood Italians' need for something different. And everything about 5-Star is different.
It is the only party that refuses state financing and its elected representatives have all voluntarily slashed their salaries. Its members never appear on television talk shows, it communicates almost exclusively through Grillo's blog (www.beppegrillo.it), and it refuses to form alliances with other parties.
Grillo aims to appeal to left and right. He attacks the old "zombie" parties and business fat cats but also the trade unions who he says no longer represent workers' interests.
And it's not all vitriol. He also offers the positive message that politics can be clean and different, constantly citing the movement's local councillors who have given up most of their salaries to provide cheap credit to small businesses.
Grillo himself will not be in parliament because a conviction for manslaughter makes him ineligible under his movement's rules. The jeep he was driving with friends on a mountain road in 1981 skidded on ice, went over a cliff and killed three of his four passengers.
There may be contradictions in Grillo and his movement, but the common claim that he has no policies is untrue, and the thrust of his ideas is clear.
He is an ecologist with a largely left-wing platform based on attacking privilege, redistributing wealth, increasing public control of schools and healthcare, and cutting spending on defence. He believes in more direct democracy using referendums and the Internet and wants new laws to clean up politics.
However, he has wavered on the crucial issue of Italy's membership of the euro zone, first calling for withdrawal, then only for a referendum and most recently saying he wanted merely an on-line, non-binding consultation.
"Grillo is interested in economics and he has a sound grasp of it," Mauro Gallegati, an economics professor at Ancona University who has advised Grillo on economic policy for 20 years, told Reuters.
Gallegati said a wealth tax on Italy's richest 1 percent would go a long way towards funding a minimum income for the unemployed, one of Grillo's main promises.
A wealth tax would almost certainly hit Grillo himself, as one of the country's most successful performers for more than 30 years. In the 2005 tax year he earned 4.3 million euros, according to leaked official data.
Grillo's own lifestyle has not always gelled with his environmentalist stands. He used to own a Ferrari and a speedboat, but now runs an ecological hybrid Toyota. He has two children by his Iranian wife and two by a previous marriage.
While Grillo's policies are nearly all on the left, he also draws considerable support from conservative voters who are equally tired of discredited parties and want something new.
Around 46 percent of his votes come from the left, 39 percent from the right and centre and the rest from previous non-voters. Unlike the other parties, his support is also evenly spread geographically and among social classes.
He gets fewer votes from the elderly, who have less access to the Internet, but "totally cleans up among the young, who have lost all faith in traditional parties," said Gualmini.
Remarkably, 5-Star's election result was achieved by a party which in many ways does not even exist.
The whole movement is based on the Internet. Its candidates for parliament were picked in primaries held on-line. It has no headquarters, no local offices and no internal hierarchy other than that Grillo is its leader.
The movement's lightweight organisation allows it to be virtually self-financing. Grillo's blog carries some advertising and sympathisers can contribute funds on-line.
Grillo and Casaleggio probably became aware of their political potential in 2007 when protest rallies they organised on Grillo's blog, held simultaneously in cities around Italy, drew an estimated 2 million participants.
Grillo's burly frame, wrinkled face and white, shaggy hair were little known internationally before the election campaign, but he had been a household name in Italy since he emerged as a television comedian in the late 1970s.
The son of the owner of a small welding company, he studied economics at the university of his home town of Genoa but never finished his degree. He then worked briefly as a clothing salesman before becoming a stand-up comic in cabaret.
After breaking into television his popularity grew and his shows became increasingly pungent and satirical.
In 1986 he took aim at the ruling Socialist party on a Saturday night show, a move that virtually ended his TV career but boosted his popularity. The rest is history. Grillo moved out of television into theatres and public squares, beginning his metamorphosis from comic to political leader.
His act began to resemble the furious rallies seen in the election campaign, addressing subjects like renewable energy, greener cities and the corruption of the Italy's leaders. It was this final theme that resonated most with his audience.
To quell growing outrage at the privileges of the political caste, Italy's parties have repeatedly vowed to curb their salaries, pensions and cut the number of national and local politicians. The promises have never been fulfilled.
Most recently, the same parties failed to change an electoral law they all publicly decried, because they secretly thought it could benefit them. As a result the election failed to produce a majority and left the country ungovernable.
Now the centre-left coalition which won most seats is trying to woo Grillo to form a government with them by promising the same reforms. Italy awaits his - and Casaleggio's - decision.
(Additional reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio; Editing by Giles Elgood)