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 and prosecco flowed at a local bar -- the Mente Locale -- where candidates and activists crowded in to cheer as 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 incredible sign of change!" cheered Stefano Camisasso, a young candidate for the Five Star Movement (M5S) for the Senate, barely managing to contain his euphoria.

Candidates and the movement's volunteer staff wearing t-shirts and baseball caps blazoned with five yellow stars slapped each other on the back and celebrated with wine and quiche and pizza bites.

Candidate Cristina De Pietro, sat glued to the television as exit polls flashed up on the screen, and said she was still in shock.

"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."

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

In the Mazzini social club in Bologna, candidates cheered and hugged each other as each fresh exit poll arrived, dancing and clinking glass of rum beneath large posters of Grillo.

Grillo, a bushy-haired 63-year-old, was the only candidate for Italy's top job who took to the campaign trail in a camper van. His furious rants against the political system at rallies across the country drew huge crowds of people sick of politicians tainted by scandals.

"This is fantastic! We will be an extraordinary force," Grillo said in a phone interview on his movement's website, warning mainstream politicians they would "only last a few more months."

"We'll have 110 people in parliament and we'll be millions outside, this is global news," said the campaigner, who -- after a gruelling couple of months doing daily rallies in the snow, wind and rain -- had retired to bed to celebrate with a cup of camomile tea.

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 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, exhausted but triumphant-looking candidates wandered around the lobby of a hotel in the historic centre in a daze.

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

"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 the unfamiliar media attention was overwhelming, but it was worth it to make a difference: "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!" he said.