ROME Italy's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement suffered a resounding defeat in local elections, results released on Monday showed, losing ground to traditional parties less than a year before a national vote is due.
Five-Star candidates failed to qualify for run-off ballots in the 25 largest cities up for grabs on Sunday, including the northern port city of Genoa, home to the movement's founder, comedian Beppe Grillo.
By contrast, centre-right parties including former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia performed strongly, suggesting they could be a contender at the general election if they can unite around a single leader.
National elections must be held by the first half of next year and could come as early as this autumn, meaning Sunday's vote in 1,000 towns and cities was an important test of political strength.
Newspaper headlines and pundits pounced on the results, saying the 5-Star might have peaked, but Grillo shot back on Monday, confidently predicting his group would bounce back.
"Everyone is gloating, putting forward rarefied analysis on the death of the 5-Star and the return of a bipolar (political) system," Grillo wrote on his blog.
"Convince yourself this is true so you can sleep more soundly. We will continue forward on our path."
5-Star bases much of its appeal on fighting corruption, its flagship policy is a "citizens wage" to help Italy's army of unemployed, and it promises a referendum on membership of the euro currency blamed by many for years of economic underperformance.
The party had hoped to build on last year's election successes, when it took control of 19 large towns and cities, including Rome. But its rule in the capital has been mired in controversy, and its grassroots operations elsewhere have been snarled by internal feuding.
Despite its local difficulties, the most recent opinion polls taken ahead of Sunday's vote say the 5-Star would win more than 30 percent in a national race, just ahead of the ruling Democratic Party (PD) led by former prime minister Matteo Renzi.
Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia and the far-right Northern League - long-time allies but with increasingly diverging political agendas - trail with less than 15 percent each.
The centre-right fared strongly on Sunday where Forza Italia and the League put aside their divisions and ran together, taking the lead in 13 of the 24 main municipal races. A run-off ballot between the two leading candidates is due on June 25.
"We hope that Renzi faces the consequences of this latest no-confidence vote in the government," said Matteo Salvini, leader of the League.
Berlusconi said the vote proved that "the centre-right can win when it is united," while pointing out that his own party got more votes than the League.
He also warned against writing off 5-Star, saying it remained "a formidable force which it would be short-sighted to under-estimate."
The only outright winner in a major city on Sunday was Leoluca Orlando, who led the centre-left to victory in the Sicilian capital Palermo, securing his fifth mandate.
An anti-mafia firebrand, Orlando has governed the city for 16 of the past 32 years.
Most of the 5-Star candidates would have been new to government. Last year the 5-Star cast its victory in Rome, the nation's capital, as proof it was ready to govern.
But Mayor Virginia Raggi has been dogged by legal scandals since taking office, and she has appeared slow to revive a city hobbled by years of corruption and economic decline.
Until last week, Italy's main parties had been trying to pass a new proportional electoral law together, but the deal unravelled.
Last week, markets appeared wary of more political instability in Italy, which has the euro zone's highest public debt after Greece and has been underperforming, fearing an autumn election could interfere with the presentation of a belt-tightening 2018 budget.
(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer and Gavin Jones; Graphic by Jeremy Gaunt; Editing by Toby Chopra)