ROME Sweeping wins for the center left in Italy's local elections have sounded alarms for Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo, the charismatic figures who emerged as the big winners from February's deadlocked national vote.
Elections on Monday in more than 500 towns and cities, including the capital Rome, saw the center left bounce back from its humiliating near-collapse in the parliamentary election, which it had long been expected to win comfortably.
By contrast, Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) failed to win a single major city, while Grillo's 5-Star Movement suffered stinging losses in Sicily, scene of one of its greatest triumphs last year, fuelling growing unhappiness among some party members at their fiery leader's autocratic style.
"We are paying for the tone and the communication style of Beppe Grillo," 5-Star senator Adele Gambaro told SkyTG24 television. "The 5-Star Movement's problem is Beppe Grillo."
Roberto D'Alimonte, one of Italy's top election analysts, said Grillo's movement suffered from a lack of credible candidates and the dominance of its charismatic leader, but that it was not alone.
"The same thing applies to the PDL. In local voting, when Berlusconi is not a candidate, it doesn't fare well. They don't have the candidates," he said.
Even Renato Brunetta, the PDL leader in the lower house, calls the party "monarchic and anarchic" and many see its dependence on Berlusconi's proven campaign skills and feel for the electorate as a double-edged sword.
"No Silvio, No Party", ran a headline in the right-wing Il Giornale newspaper, owned by the Berlusconi family.
Monday's result may have strengthened Prime Minister Enrico Letta's Democratic Party, locked in uneasy coalition with Berlusconi after no party emerged with a majority in February, but it has also complicated a fractured political scene.
The grand coalition between the two traditional rivals on the right and left is seen as a measure of last resort even by members of the government, and an unusually low turnout reflected widespread disillusionment with the political system.
"AM I THE PROBLEM?"
For Grillo, whose rapid ascent made him one of the most talked-about politicians in Europe, the failure to build on the protest vote and the resulting criticism have been a shock.
On his blog, Grillo said the succession of elections that changed nothing was "an obscene spectacle". But he was clearly stung by the criticism, saying Gambaro should leave the party "as soon as possible" and challenging other dissidents.
"I would like to know what the 5-Star Movement thinks of these declarations, and if I am the problem," he wrote.
Having rejected overtures to back a government of the center left during the stalemate that followed the election, he now appears to be paying the price for allowing Berlusconi back in.
"The movement is coming to a halt because it didn't take its opportunities when they were offered," Alfonso V. from Turin wrote on Grillo's blog, the party's main instrument of communication, echoing many other comments.
The ex-comic stunned Italy in the national election by leading what had been a fringe party to 25 percent of the vote.
This time, it won just two small towns and saw its vote drop sharply in Sicily, where elections last year provided the springboard for its national triumph a few months later.
In Catania, its candidate won less than 5 percent of the vote, a far cry from the 31 percent it scored there in February.
But with Italy still deep in recession, youth unemployment above 40 percent and anger at the political class as strong as ever, the conditions that fuelled the movement are still in place, and few would suggest its day is past.
Opinion polls still give it around 20 percent of the vote nationally. "If the crisis worsens and unemployment keeps going up, that could really bring about a revival," D'Alimonte said.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)