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Sicily 'tsunami' leaves politics in disarray

ROME--Italy's major parties were in disarray Tuesday after an anti-establishment party headed by comic Beppe Grillo made major gains in a regional election in Sicily seen as a test of political waters ahead of a national vote next year.

Sunday's ballot saw Grillo's Five Star Movement pick up votes at the expense of the center-right party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, which lost its key stronghold in Sicily to the center-left.

Analysts said the result, which also saw a drop in support for the center-left Democratic Party (PD) despite its victory, was a reflection of the apathy among recession-hit Italians who are sick of corruption.

“It leaves the national situation in even bigger disarray. This is a wake-up call: Italians are fed up and the parties must react. They're doing too little, too late,” said James Walston, political analyst at Rome's American University.

With only 48 percent of Sicilians turning up to vote, victory went to center-left anti-Mafia candidate Rosario Crocetta with about 30 percent, ahead of the candidate of Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party (PDL) with 26 percent in what had been its stronghold.

“Sicily: earthquake at the ballot boxes,” the left-leaning Repubblica daily said. “Before the hurricane in New York, a tsunami arrives in Sicily.”

The Five Star Movement cruised to third place on a tide of support from the disillusioned youth in Sicily, one of the poorest areas of Italy, which came to the brink of bankruptcy last year.

Challengers fear that the group will do equally well or better at a national level, as citizens revolt against austerity measures in debt-ridden Italy.

While the traditional parties spent their time ahead of the election bickering or fighting off corruption allegations, Grillo swam across the Strait of Messina in a campaign stunt and spent 20 days drumming up support in Sicily.

“The Grillo vote is a protest vote, a warning to the traditional political class. His model is also a winning model,” said Mario Centorrino, political science professor at the University of Messina in Sicily.

“Of all the national leaders, Grillo is the only one who carried out a serious election campaign, he spent days touring Sicily. We were used to leaders who arrived in the afternoon and left again on the last flight home.”

Sicilian voters dealt the biggest blow to the PDL of Berlusconi, who was convicted of tax fraud last week but has vowed to stay on in politics despite announcing he would not run for prime minister in the April election.

“Never before has abstention had such an explicit political meaning,” the Repubblica said, describing it as “the delegitimization of the main parties.”

As a barometer of the health of Italian politics in general, the vote revealed “disillusion, resignation and discouragement,” La Stampa said, while analyst Walston warned that “Italy is drifting politically.”

Massimo Franco, a columnist with leading newspaper Corriere della Sera, said the result revealed “the chasm left by the sad end of Silvio Berlusconi and his power system, which translates into abstention, fragmentation and populism.”

The situation was aggravated at the weekend when Berlusconi threatened to withdraw support for the government — a move which could spark panic among markets which have placed their faith in Prime Minister Mario Monti's technocrat government.

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