Italian voters deliver 'populist warning' to EU
Italian voters have flocked to anti-establishment, Eurosceptic parties and rejected mainstream, traditional political parties, the latest predictions from the country's election indicated.
The populist Five-Star Movement, founded by stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo as a bombastic challenge to the established order, emerged as the big winner of the general election, in a result that will be viewed with trepidation in Brussels.
With around half the ballot counted, it looked as though the Five-Star Movement had won around a third of all votes, up from 25pc in Italy's last general election in 2013.
The Eurosceptic, anti-immigration Northern League also performed well, according to preliminary calculations.
The numbers suggested that The League and Five-Star together attracted 50pc of all votes.
The League was projected to take more than 17pc of the vote - compared with just 4pc at the last election.
In a bitter blow for former premier Silvio Berlusconi, The League was projected to take more votes than his more moderate, centre-right Forza Italia party.
The two parties are in an uneasy alliance, along with two other centre-right parties, and together the bloc was expected to win around 37pc of the vote.
No party or alliance got over the threshold of 40pc, which would have allowed it to form a government outright.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of The League, wrote in a tweet: "My first words - thank you."
There was a euphoric mood at the party's headquarters in Milan, with one official telling reporters that the League's strong showing was "a clear signal to Europe, which has mistreated Italians".
The governing Democratic Party, headed by former prime minister Matteo Renzi, performed dismally, with exit polls suggesting it won less than 20pc of the vote - a disastrous result for Italy's mainstream centre-left party.
It appeared to have been punished by voters for persistently high unemployment, a laggardly economy and the reception of 600,000 migrants arriving by boat from Libya in the last four years.
As the largest party, Five-Star is likely to demand the chance to try to form a government.
"Nobody will be able to govern without the Five-Star Movement," said senior party member Riccardo Fraccaro.
"We will assume the responsibility to build this government, but in a different way, talking with all the parties about what this country needs."
However, the party has repeatedly ruled out forming a coalition with other parties, guaranteeing uncertainty over what happens next.
One scenario would be a loose alliance between Five-Star and The League - both have called for hundreds of thousands of unauthorised migrants to be sent back to their home countries and both have raised the prospect in the past of ditching the euro.
But many analysts believe they would make strange political bedfellows.
Nigel Farage congratulated the strong result of the Five-Star Movement.
"My congratulations to my colleagues in the European Parliament (@5-Star Movement) for topping the poll tonight," he wrote in a tweet. Earlier he had tweeted: "Eurosceptism is on the rise."
The results suggested that Italy is in for a protracted period of uncertainty and weeks of tortuous horse-trading between the parties.
"Italy is far from having sorted its long-standing problems, and now it will have new ones. Be prepared for long and complex negotiations that will take months," said Lorenzo Codogno, a former chief economist at the Italian Treasury.
During the day many voters waited in line for more than an hour to vote, only to then be baffled by confusing ballots and the process to cast them - which for the first time required an anti-fraud check by polling authorities.
"You feel as if you have gone there prepared but it's not that clear," complained Sister Vincenza as she cast her ballot on Rome's Aventine hill before heading to Mass.
Some polling stations remained closed in Palermo two hours into election day because the wrong ballots were delivered and 200,000 new ones had to be reprinted overnight.
Similar ballot glitches were reported elsewhere, forcing the suspension of the vote in two towns in Alessandria.
© Daily Telegraph, London