ROME Italy's opposition 5-Star Movement, which wants to pull the nation out of the euro, declared itself ready for government on Monday after Prime Minister Matteo Renzi suffered a big defeat in a constitutional referendum and said he would resign.
"Democracy has won," the movement's founder, Beppe Grillo, wrote on his blog after partial vote results suggested Renzi's proposal to reshape Italian democracy had been defeated by as much as 20 points in an exceptionally high turnout.
5-Star campaigned hard for the 'No' vote which prevailed in Sunday's referendum by a far bigger margin than polls predicted.
Grillo called for immediate elections and said that from next week the party would begin putting together a policy platform and a cabinet team so that Italians would have all the information they needed to put the party into power.
That prospect would raise concern among Europe's mainstream politicians and financial markets, who fear the maverick party's inexperience and its proposal to hold a referendum on Italy's membership of the euro currency.
5-Star is running neck-and-neck with Renzi's Democratic Party, according to opinion polls, and would be a clear favourite to win a national election under the two-round electoral system pushed through by Renzi last year.
"The biggest loser in the referendum is the propaganda and lies of the regime," Grillo said. "The biggest winners are the people who lifted up their heads and turned out en masse to vote."
Among the political parties, the biggest winner is probably 5-Star which campaigned for months against Renzi's proposals to reduce the role of the Senate and claw back powers from regional authorities.
One of the party's leading lights, Alessandro Di Battista, a 38-year-old deputy widely expected to be foreign minister if 5-Star wins power, spent the summer travelling around Italy on a scooter campaigning to muster support against the reform.
At a 5-Star news conference after the referendum, Di Battista said it was time for opponents and commentators to stop branding the party as populist and "anti-political" and to treat it as a future party of government.
Luigi Di Maio, 30, expected to be the party's candidate for prime minister, listed its flagship proposals for basic income support for the poor, a referendum on the euro, tax cuts for small companies and a public bank to fund investments.
5-Star won a major breakthrough after winning mayoral elections this summer in the capital Rome and the northern city of Turin and may get a further boost in support in the wake of the referendum. But its path to power will not be easy.
The mainstream parties have already said they plan to change the electoral law, and whichever system is adopted is likely to make it much harder for 5-Star, a political outsider that rejects any alliances with its "establishment" rivals.