ROME (Reuters) - Sunday's performance in Italian local elections was a disappointment for the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, but not one that will necessarily beat back its prospects in the national election due next May at the latest.
The movement failed to make the run-off in any of the main 25 cities up for grabs on Sunday, when nine million Italians were called to the polls.
But the mayoral elections may have been a case of "all politics is local" - not about the great national issues.
"I don't think there is any connection between this local vote and what will happen in the general election, so it doesn't hurt 5-Star's prospects," said sociologist Luca Ricolfi, one of Italy's most prominent political commentators.
"Mayoral elections are about local candidates, national ones are about fear and hope," he said. "Fear of the unknown will hurt 5-Star, while hope for change will help it. It's impossible to say which sentiment will be strongest when the time comes."
Five-Star, which was founded nine years ago by comedian Beppe Grillo, has struggled in previous local elections due to its loose organisation and lack of high profile candidates.
Its triumphs in mayoral contests last year in Rome and Turin were stunning exceptions, not the rule. Its subsequent problems in governing those cities, especially Rome, have raised questions about its capacity to run local administrations.
"Today shows that a year after its victory in Rome, the verdict on its ability to govern at a local level is negative," said Matteo Ricci, head of local affairs for the ruling centre-left Democratic Party (PD).
At parliamentary elections, on the other hand, voters are more influenced by policy pledges and well-established national leaders than by on-the-ground networking and the profile of local candidates, political analysts say.
The party is putting much emphasis on its commitment to introduce a "citizens wage" to help Italy's army of unemployed, and is promising a referendum on membership of the euro currency blamed by many for years of economic underperformance.
Grillo tried to put a brave face on Sunday's defeats, saying they masked "slow but inexorable progress". At each round of local elections the movement presented more candidates and increased its share of the total vote, he wrote on his blog.
But sometimes they were up against electoral coalitions. In the Sicilian capital of Palermo seven parties lined up behind both the centre-right and centre-left tickets. So although the 5-Star picked up many more votes than any other single party, it came a distant third in the overall count
Both the left and the right are bitterly divided at a national level. The complex alliances woven inside city walls would be extremely hard to replicate across the country as a whole.
Sunday's results for 5-Star were worse than expected but no bolt from the blue. Opinion polls had pointed to its defeat in all the main cities, while many of the same polling agencies say it would come first in a general election.
In the most closely-watched contests of Palermo, Genoa and Parma, 5-Star also helped defeat itself with spectacular infighting -- a recurrent problem for the group, which prides itself on a flat leadership structure, where everyone has an equal say.
As national elections edge closer, some 5-Star insiders fear the rampant local bickering could expand to the national stage.
The group is meant to select its candidate for prime minister in September via an online poll, and then the cabinet team. Tensions are already simmering amongst top candidates.
So far, 5-Star has always bounced back from its setbacks. The next major test may be the regional government of Sicily in November.
Editing by Crispian Balmer/Jeremy Gaunt