ROME Beppe Grillo can allow himself a few days to bask in the afterglow of his triumph in Italy's election, but soon the comedian who now leads the country's largest party will face some tough political choices.
After a spectacular rise since its formation in 2009, Grillo's anti-establishment 5-Star movement won a stunning 26 percent of lower house votes at the election, fractionally more than the centre-left Democratic Party (PD).
His 108 seats in the 630 seat Chamber of Deputies and 54 in the 315 seat Senate leave him holding the key to Italy's political future. His followers are delighted.
"We hope to change politics and give a bigger voice to the young. The old parties did nothing for 30 years," said Manolo Pellegrini, a 26 year-old television technician who voted for Grillo in Rome.
The only government that can be formed without Grillo's consent would be a re-edition of the unnatural alliance between centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi and Pier Luigi Bersani on the centre-left which ruled for a year under outgoing technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti.
Yet this would enrage many supporters on both sides and make it likely that when Italians return to the polls, the 5-Star Movement performs even better.
That is why, after decrying Grillo for months as a rabble-rousing demagogue, the other parties are already hinting they want to do business with him.
Now not just Italians, but also foreign leaders worried by the inconclusive election outcome in the euro zone's third largest economy, are asking themselves what Grillo will do next.
"There are no strategies, we will support ideas that are in line with ours, bill by bill," he told reporters on Tuesday.
With his fierce invective against established politicians, the hoarse-voiced, shaggy-haired Grillo has been branded a dangerous populist by many commentators, yet he could turn out to be a positive force for Italy.
Grillo, who is 64, did not run for election himself and says with some irony that he is merely the 5-Star's "spokesman."
One possibility is that he eventually joins forces with the PD for a government that finally cuts politicians' privileges, changes the dysfunctional electoral system and perhaps adopts some of his signature policies on ecology or internet access.
The other option, perhaps more likely, is that he remains in opposition with his army of young lawmakers, most with no previous experience as career politicians.
They were selected in primary elections held on the Internet in which would-be candidates presented themselves with a biography or using a webcam.
If Grillo stays in opposition, the threat that he makes further gains may be just the scourge that the other parties need to finally reform the electoral law and adopt the cost-cutting reforms that they have promised for years.
These are best-case scenarios. A less favourable one for Grillo is that his lawmakers' idealistic enthusiasm dissolves into anarchy when they arrive in the corridors of power and some gradually abandon ship to join the more established parties.
In a rare and unusually frank newspaper interview last summer, Grillo admitted that his movement was more suited to local politics and was unprepared for parliament.
Carla Ruocci, a 34 year-old mother of two who will leave her job in the state tax offices to become a lower house deputy said she and her colleagues would collect just 2,500 euros per month, compared with the standard lawmakers' salary of around 8,000.
"The first thing I want to do in parliament is to reduce what Italians have to pay for their political institutions," she told Reuters in a Rome hotel where Grillo's supporters were celebrating their election success.
Alarm over Grillo's call for a referendum on Italy's euro membership or occasional suggestions it should restructure its debt is probably unjustified. These issues do not figure in the party's programme and are certainly not the core of his appeal.
That is based overwhelmingly on cutting down Italy's bloated political apparatus and putting an end to the privilege and corruption of its political and business elite.
Among scores of comments by Grillo supporters to Reuters outside the polling stations, there were none that wanted Italy to leave the euro, but the vast majority said they were voting to clean up politics.
It was no coincidence that Grillo's first comment after the election was a tweet saying simply: "Honesty will become fashionable."
He proposes to slash lawmakers' salaries, impose a salary limit for public sector managers of 12 times the average salary of their workers, and a minimum income for jobless Italians.
Other policy planks include breaking down state monopolies in transport, energy and communications, free internet access for everyone and the abolition of state funding for newspapers which he says limits their independence.
His programme also has a strong ecological slant, promising incentives for green energy production, a tax on the use of cars in city centres and an extensive network of urban cycle tracks.
Grillo has not only refused to accept any state financing for his movement, but 5-Star's regional councillors in Sicily took a 75 percent cut in their salary and pooled the saving to provide cheap credit to small businesses.
He showed what some saw as a disturbingly authoritarian style when, two months ago, he expelled two party members who bemoaned a lack of internal democracy and flouted the movement's rule not to appear on television talk shows.
"Don't come and break my balls, me of all people, about democracy. I'm getting fed up, I'm getting angry, seriously angry," Grillo wrote on the 5-Star Movement's blog, its main forum for communication.
While his rhetorical skills make him an ideal front man, many analysts point out that his movement's followers, often young professionals, tend to be far more down to earth and pragmatic.
The average age of the four mayors elected by the 5-Star Movement in local elections last May was 31, in contrast to the gerontocratic world of Italian politics.
The most high profile was Federico Pizzarotti, a previously unknown computer technician elected as mayor of the prosperous northern city of Parma, famous for its ham and cheese.
Judging by the national election, the citizens of Parma have liked what they have seen, with 5-Star winning 28 percent of the vote in the city, even higher than its showing nationally.
In Sicily, where four months ago the party elected numerous regional councillors that have influenced local policy, it boosted its vote from 18 percent to a startling 34 percent, its highest showing anywhere in the country.
In both places, 5-Star has been pragmatic and worked with allies on a case-by-case basis, a far-cry from the iconoclastic rhetoric of Grillo's speeches.
(Additional reporting by Naomi O'Leary, Steve Scherer and Wladimiro Pantaleone)
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