Beppe Grillo: the live wire of Italy's election

Comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement are the wild card in Italian politics, after making big gains among voters with a blend of populism and anti-corruption initiatives.

Bushy-haired 63-year-old Grillo has been travelling in a camper van to rallies across the country, drawing large crowds of young people, pensioners and women sick of traditional politicians caught with their hands in the till.

The Internet-based movement, which grew out of Grillo's hugely popular blog, forced Italy's main parties to take it seriously when it won the highest number of votes for any single party in regional elections in Sicily last year.

In a stellar boom, the Five Star Movement (M5S) is now snapping at the heels of the country's main left and right-wing parties.

"They are attacking us, they're terrorised, because we're doing something exceptional. We are actually going to win the election!" he said during a trip to Lombardy, the country's biggest region and a key election battleground.

The former comedian, famed for his wild outbursts against the system, gained greater notoriety by swimming across the Strait of Messina in a campaign stunt.

The latest opinion polls put Grillo in third place behind Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom party (PDL) and the front-running Democratic party (PD), though he insists the polls are misleading.

Come snow blizzards, rain or shine, disgruntled voters sick of the fraud scandals tainting Italian politics or squeezed by high taxes and a recession, mass to hear Grillo's radical plan for "creating a new Italy from scrap."

M5S proposals are driven by idealism, from free Internet for everyone and electronic tablets for all school children, to launching a green economy, tax cuts, reducing the working week to 20 hours and revolutionising health care.

The young candidates jostling for parliament seats say the aim is to swap the PIL (Gross Domestic Product) with the BIL -- "Gross Domestic Happiness."

Grillo, who uses mainly social media networks and rarely gives interviews to Italian journalists -- accusing them of being members of the same corrupt elite as politicians -- encourages young people to get involved in politics.

His blog is the most widely read in Italy and he counts over a million likes on his fan page on Facebook and close to 900,000 followers on Twitter.

Grillo says traditional politics is over and advocates a "participatory democracy" in which ordinary citizens can become local protagonists.

"It's a lifestyle choice for whoever votes M5S -- you have to participate actively in politics, change your habits: eat, travel, shop in a certain way."

Grillo says his initiatives can be funded through cuts in military spending, an end to wasteful public projects and a stop to perks for politicians.

"The list of possible cuts is infinite but (Prime Minister Mario) Monti cannot implement them. The system cannot reform itself," Grillo, who calls Italy's bickering political parties a "cancer of democracy," said earlier.

Grillo started out as a stand-up comic and became a showman on Rai public television in the 1970s before being kicked out for making jokes about then prime minister Bettino Craxi, who was subsequently convicted for corruption.

His television success made him a millionaire, which has allowed him to fund his movement mainly out of his own pocket. He returned to television in the 1990s and became well-known for his environmental advocacy work.

His political debut came in 2007 when he used the Internet to organise mass demonstrations against Italy's political class entitled "Vaffanculo Day" ("F***k Off Day") -- which attracted hundreds of thousands of people.

His biting tongue and fondness for expletives spare few in Italy's current political spectrum, and he nicknames Monti "Rigor Montis" -- a satirical reference to the outgoing prime minister's somewhat sober style.