By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - An Italian comic who is campaigning for local elections riding a wave of discontent among voters says the solution to the economic crisis is default on the country's enormous debt and a return to the lira.
Beppe Grillo isn't joking when he says Italy needs to get out of the euro zone fast and rejuvenate a political system dominated by parties he says are dead.
"We need to try get out of the euro zone with as little damage as possible. We're getting poorer and Germany is getting richer," the 63-year-old comedian told Reuters by telephone from his camper during a campaign that has seen him tour Italy.
Grillo's movement - borne out of the comic's rallies that for years derided and attacked politicians of all colors - is expected to fare well in local elections on May 6-7 that will be the first voter test since Prime Minister Mario Monti took power in November.
While he does not have the clout to challenge the established parties, Grillo could unify the protest vote. His growing impact in Italy has echoed the success of other European outsiders as the economic crisis has eaten away at the credibility of old-style party systems.
Grillo, who is not running, is also exploiting growing disaffection in Italy with politicians who are seen as corrupt and ineffectual, or, in the case of Monti, criticized as mere accountants at the mercy of the banks rather than at the service of the people.
Grillo calls the prime minister "Rigor Montis" and says he is driving the nation into poverty simply to try to pay back Italy's 1.9-trillion-euro ($2.52-trillion) debt, the world's fourth-largest, which is mostly held by banks, not by people.
"If we had the lira, in one night we could write two lines on a piece of paper and devalue by 30 percent, and then we could all start over. As things are now, we can't make it," the bearded comic said in the interview.
"NOT A DEMAGOGUE"
Grillo's success has made him an enemy of the political class, earning him the moniker of a Pied Piper or a demagogue. One member of former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's party even compared him to Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.
During a speech on April 25, when Italy marks its liberation from fascism and Nazi occupation, President Giorgio Napolitano warned of the dangers of populism and called for parties to renew themselves, which seemed like a direct shot at Grillo.
"We're a political force," Grillo said. "The president does not understand this - that I'm not a demagogue."
His 5-Star Movement has a left-wing, populist stance against banks and big business, espouses environmental causes, and glorifies the power of new technology and the Internet. Although it has won some seats in local administrations in the past, it has so far never made it in a national vote.
If Grillo can keep his momentum and translate it into electoral results, that might change when Italy holds its next general election next year.
There are big differences with France's National Front, the eurosceptical True Finns, or a clutch of small Greek parties on the right and left, but like all of these movements Grillo has surfed a tide of popular anger against the financial system, EU bureaucrats and corrupt politicians.
Grillo says he wants to bring to parliament "engineers, chemists, physicists, and computer engineers in their thirties. That's our base."
The travails of the anti-EU, populist Northern League party, whose leader Umberto Bossi resigned this month over a funding scandal, have also served to boost Grillo's potential support.
According to a poll published this week by the Ipsos agency, the 5-Star Movement would now win 7.7 percent of the popular vote, which would make it the fifth-biggest bloc a highly fragmented political landscape.
What is clear is that the crowds he draws seem to grow by the day. The former standup comic was known for his biting monologues, and he still knows how to win over an audience.
"They're giving us hams, salamis, big sticks of provolone cheese. It's unbelievable!"
(Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)