Italian elections have hurled a tsunami against the system: An upstart anti-establishment party that rejects European Union-dictated austerity measures is now the single biggest party in Parliament. Newspaper headlines proclaim the country ungovernable, and world financial markets are spooked by the prospect of gridlock in the eurozone's third-largest economy.
Thanks to a byzantine election law, the center-left Democratic Party came in first by a slim majority. But it can't govern alone.
The center-right coalition of disgraced former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi came back from the political graveyard and scored surprisingly well. Caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti, the darling of the international community, was the big loser.
But the big surprise was the huge success of the newly created Five Star Movement led by comedian turned blogger Beppe Grillo, who capitalized on widespread anger over economic hardships and a corrupt political establishment.
"We're bringing honest people into Parliament who will have a positive effect," says Grillo. "They will be like a virus that will make honesty fashionable again."
The movement presented untested and mostly unknown candidates chosen in online primaries. Newly elected human rights activist Alessandro di Battista celebrated with his cheering party colleagues in a Roman pizzeria Monday night.
"We free, informed, organized and determined citizens will do it better than the political class that has governed us in a shameful manner for the last 20 years," he said.
The movement stipulates that no one can run who has been convicted of a criminal offense, so Grillo will not be in Parliament — he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after a car crash that killed three people. But he remains the charismatic and often autocratic leader of those the media has dubbed "the Grillini."
The movement calls for an end to austerity, slashing taxes and a referendum on remaining in the eurozone. Grillo has ruled out an alliance with another party and vows that the old parties will soon be forced out of Parliament.
"They can't last more than six, seven months," Grillo says. "We will be watching them as we pursue our program — free water, free education, free health care. If they follow us, OK. Otherwise, it will be a very tough battle for all those old parties."
Grillo's success went far beyond even the most optimistic surveys. Pollsters were off the mark on just about all of their forecasts, both before the vote and with exit polls.
Political scientist Roberto D'Alimonte was shocked and suggested that Italians are hesitant to reveal whom they really vote for.
"This is the catastrophic outcome nobody predicted," he said. "Polls have lied to us. All along, polls have lied."
The other big surprise of the election was the resurgence of Berlusconi, who was pressured to resign 15 months ago after Italy was brought to the brink of financial collapse. He waged an intensely populist campaign — like Grillo, attacking the European Union and Germany in particular, and making unrealistic promises.
Giuliano Ferrara, a former Berlusconi spokesman, says it was a winning strategy.
"Berlusconi was a genius. He said, 'I'm going to give back all the taxes you paid last year,' and this was explosive," Ferrara says. "He is the one who smiles the best, the most simpatico, the most libertarian. He is a star, and this was an election of the stars."
But Enrico Letta, deputy secretary of the Democratic Party, is dismayed by the message Italian voters are sending to their European partners and to financial markets.
"More than 50 percent of voters cast their ballots brutally against the euro, against Europe, against Germany," Letta says. "This vote will have very heavy repercussions in Europe — the overall economic situation is weak, and an ungovernable Italy will make it worse."
Even in the best of times, the government-formation process takes a few weeks, and this time there are few viable options ahead. The prospect of weeks of uncertainty is already causing great anxiety in international markets.
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