Protest party savours Italian election success

Supporters of a new Italian anti-austerity party led by former comedian Beppe Grillo celebrated early results pointing to a stunning electoral success on Monday that could turn the movement into the country's third biggest political force.

In Grillo's home town of Genoa in northwest Italy, the beer flowed at a local bar -- the Mente Locale -- where candidates and activists crowded in to cheer as preliminary results showed they might have won as much as a quarter of the vote.

Dozens of mostly young candidates -- some close to the minimum age of 25 and many with little or no political experience -- are set to enter parliament for the first time as Italians fed up with austerity and corruption flocked to their ranks.

"This is an extremely strong sign of change," said Stefano Camisasso, a candidate for the Five Star Movement (M5S) for the Senate, containing his euphoria as he planned the move to Rome.

Another candidate, Cristina De Pietro, said she was still in shock as she watched a television.

"This is a moment when you feel a bit weird because we are ordinary citizens, we don't have political experience," she said.

"We have a lot to learn," she said.

Asked what she made of the early results, she said simply: "This is what Italy needed!"

Grillo, a bushy-haired 63-year-old, took to the campaign trail in a camper van, travelling to rallies across the country which drew large crowds of young people, pensioners and women sick of traditional politicians tainted by scandals.

The Internet-based movement has called for Italy's public debt to be cancelled and for a referendum on whether to stay in the eurozone, as well as advocating for a 20-hour working week.

It grew out of Grillo's popular blog and 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.

M5S proposals are also driven by a mix of economic populism and idealism -- from free Internet for everyone and electronic tablets for all school children, to a green economy.

"This is quite simply a historic moment for Europe," said Simon Claviere, a political consultant for the movement.

The movement "has already left a deep mark on this campaign and this will definitely be confirmed on a European level," he said.

In Rome too, candidates wandered around the lobby of a hotel in the city centre still in a daze.

Candidate Fabiola Anitori said: "This is well above our expectations. We are really happy and we can carry on the battle!

"We'll approve laws that we think are useful for the people. The result shows citizens have come to the fore because the government forgot about them."

Another candidate, Davide Barillari, said: "We're just ordinary citizens who have come into politics from the bottom. We are the answer to corrupt politicians."

"We are immensely happy. Italians no longer have their eyes closed!"