Beppe Grillo's party no longer a standing joke in Italian politics
Beppe Grillo adds a new dynamic after his party wins a quarter of the lower house votes
With dozens of new lawmakers from an Italian protest movement still dazed after a shock election success, the party's former comedian turned activist leader was suddenly in the driving seat yesterday.
Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement (M5S) captured more than a quarter of the vote for the lower house, incredibly becoming the biggest individual party in parliament and the number three grouping after the main right and left coalitions.
"Grillo will play a decisive role. He has to decide whether to strike a limited agreement with the left or whether to go for fresh elections," said Roberto D'Alimonte, a politics professor at Rome's LUISS university.
"All the cards are in his hands," D'Alimonte said.
It is a stunning turn of events for the tousle-haired 64-year-old who has campaigned to packed squares across the country, channelling the discontent of Italians fed up with austerity and corrupt politicians.
"Boom for Grillo, Italy Ungovernable", screamed the left-leaning La Repubblica daily.
The elections spelled a "victory for a euro-sceptic Italy in the face of the policy of economic rigour", said an editorial in Italy's leading daily Corriere della Sera.
"This is fantastic! We will be an extraordinary force!" Grillo said on Monday, warning mainstream politicians they would "only last a few more months".
"We'll have 110 people in parliament and we'll be millions outside," said the campaigner.
Many of the new lawmakers are young - some are close to the minimum age of 25 for entering the lower house - and they espouse an eclectic mix of environmental, leftist causes and general anti-sleaze ethos.
Virtually all the candidates were newcomers to politics including students, housewives, doctors, laid-off factory workers and even an astrophysicist.
Supporters say Grillo's movement has breathed new life into politics but critics warn it is an unpredictable populist group with completely unrealistic aims - like the cancellation of Italy's debt and a 20-hour working week.
The movement "has no spokesman or clear mechanism for deciding on policy", said James Walston, a professor at the American University of Rome. "It might dissolve in a few weeks, it might develop an independent statute or it might stay under Grillo's direct control," he said.
An added complication is that Grillo cannot enter parliament because he has a conviction for manslaughter over a car accident in the 1980s in which three people died - excluding him under his movement's own rules.
The prospect of an unelected anti-system activist pulling the strings in Italian politics from outside parliament has seasoned observers worried.
"One in four Italians voted for a party that says no to almost everything," said Franco Debenedetti, a columnist for Il Sole 24 Ore business daily.
Grillo said his movement's success sounded a death knell for the mainstream political parties.
"They've failed, both left and right. They've been there for 25 years and they've led the country into this catastrophe. Italy's problem is these people. They won't last long. Not long at all."