By James Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - A television gadfly who has been making jokes at politicians' expense for three decades, Beppe Grillo's sharp tongue, shaggy hair and rasping Genoese accent have created one of the most distinctive personal brands in Italian politics.
His 5 Star Movement has campaigned on an eclectic mix of policies including scrapping perks for parliamentarians, setting limits on press ownership (a swipe at former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi) and improving broadband connections. Its anti-establishment appeal has propelled it from the fringes to become Italy's second-strongest political force in the space of a few months.
"For the moment it's not about the programme," said Maurizio Pessato, vice president of polling group SWG, whose latest poll shows the 5 Star Movement with 20 percent support behind only the center-left Democratic Party on 24 percent.
"The issue is the total repulsion against the present political class, of all the parties more or less, felt by many Italians. The people turning to Grillo at the moment feel revulsion, they want a total change or at least they want to send a signal."
Outside Italy, most attention has been focused on his caustic attacks on the euro and on Prime Minister Mario Monti's technocrat government, which has hiked taxes to try to contain Italy's public debt and pushed through deeply unpopular measures making it easier for employers to hire and fire.
He describes Monti as a "reckless accountant" but has toned down his calls for Italy to leave the single currency, suggesting in a recent interview that a referendum may be the best way of dealing with the issue.
Although the economic crisis may be fuelling Grillo's rise, it is not the main driver, said Michele Sorice, a professor of political communication at Rome's LUISS university.
"I think these things play a role but I don't think it's the main factor," he said. "I think this is the product of the crisis in the Italian political system."
Berlusconi's legal problems have dominated world headlines but in Italy an almost endless tide of scandal has swept across almost the whole political spectrum.
Newspapers carry almost daily stories of waste, privilege, misuse of public funds, bribery, embezzlement and influence-peddling by local, regional and national politicians who cling to their positions with limpet-like resistance.
According to a survey last month by the Digis polling institute, 72 percent of those questioned felt the situation was as bad or worse than it was during the "Bribesville" scandals which destroyed the old political order in Italy in the 1990s.
Speaking at a conference in Rome on the crisis of sovereignty faced by Europe, Massimo Franco, one of Italy's most respected political commentators, said the political establishment had caused its own destruction.
"This has been a case of suicide by an Italian political class that once had a significant standing and substantial electoral consensus, and then they destroyed it all," he said.
The movement's biggest success came in last month's local elections in which it won the mayoral race in Parma, gained dozens of council seats and fuelled a rout of Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL), the main party on the center-right.
That represented a breakthrough for a movement that sprang out of Grillo's popular "V-Day" anti-corruption rallies, named to match a widely used Italian obscenity that starts with V and means roughly "Up Yours".
With national elections looming early next year, opinion polls currently point to a government led by the center-left but Grillo, who strongly opposes traditional political alliances, would have a big part to play from the sidelines.
Significantly, his strongest support comes from younger people and the north of Italy, the most productive part of the country that was the stronghold of the regionalist Northern League party before it, too, was brought low by scandal.
A prolific blogger, who now shuns television, the 63 year-old has drawn large numbers of younger voters, disillusioned with a traditional system that has shut them out of jobs and sent youth unemployment up to around 35 percent.
How long its success will last is an open question and there have been numerous teething troubles as its young, inexperienced candidates have had to come to grips with the reality of running a public administration.
But with the government's term due to end in less than a year, it looks set to add a further complicating factor to the already confused picture shaping up after Monti steps down.
Grillo's own profanity-strewn style and his scattergun abuse of politicians in speeches and on his popular blog, have fuelled frequent accusations of populism and demagoguery.
But behind him, he has an army of dedicated, well educated supporters whose mastery of the Internet and social networks far exceeds that of any of the mainstream parties.
"They'll have the experience of local government behind them by the time the elections come, then you've got the crisis in the other parties so I'm convinced he'll get to the elections in good shape," said Pessato.
Grillo vehemently denies his movement is a party in the normal sense, describing it as a "free association of citizens". He refused to stand for elected office himself after a conviction for manslaughter after three passengers died when a jeep he was driving crashed in 1981.
Its mixed bag of green-tinted, anti-establishment policies, with echoes of the platforms of other alternative groups such as the Pirate Party in Germany, certainly underline how difficult it is to pin down in classical political terms.
Its programme includes the abolition of the guild of professional journalists, a commitment to support non-profit companies and penalizing companies that sell water in environment-unfriendly plastic bottles.
It wants to cut waste, combat political corruption and hold public officials criminally responsible for policies that cause death or injury. It encourages free health care, green energy and public transport instead of private cars. It wants to abolish corporate monopolies, strengthen the rights of small shareholders and protect local manufacturing.
"His proposals are very broad, apparently with no ideology but in fact with a new form of ideology which puts a number of ideas together coming from the libertarian left or the radicals, with others that come from the right," said LUISS university's Sorice.
One of the big differences with other grassroots groups such as the Pirate Party is the overbearing figure of Grillo himself, its only nationally recognizable figure but one whose hectoring style puts off many voters.
Italy has a long history of "anti politics", from the "Front of the Common Man", a short-lived postwar party whose motto was "Get off our backs," to the billionaire entrepreneur Berlusconi himself, who always campaigned as a plain-spoken outsider.
Whether the 5 Star Movement can establish itself as a durable alternative may depend on its relentless leader.
"Strangely enough, it's weak point may be Beppe Grillo," said Sorice. "If the movement manages to outgrow Beppe Grillo it could represent a significant share of the Italian electorate."
(editing by Janet McBride)