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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Voters in Italy held a national election this week. The biggest share of votes went to a party that opposes Italy's political establishment and opposes Italy's austerity program.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Europeans are asking what happens next to the eurozone's third-largest economy. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thanks to a Byzantine election law, the center-left Democratic Party came in first by a slim majority. But it can't govern alone. The center-right coalition of disgraced former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi came back from the political graveyard and scored surprisingly well.

Caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti, the darling of the international community, was the big loser. The big surprise was the huge success of the newly-created Five Star Movement led by comedian-turned blogger Beppe Grillo who capitalized on widespread anger over economic hardships and a corrupt political establishment.

BEPPE GRILLO: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: We're bringing honest people into parliament who will have a positive effect, says Grillo. They will be like a virus that will make honesty fashionable again. The movement presented untested and mostly unknown candidates. Newly-elected human rights activist Alessandro di Battista celebrated with his party colleagues in a Roman pizzeria last night.

ALESSANDRO DI BATTISTA: (Through translator) We free, informed, organized and determined citizens will do it better than the political class that has governed us in a shameful manner for the last 20 years.

POGGIOLI: The movement stipulates that no one can run who has been convicted of a criminal offense, so Grillo will not be in Parliament. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after a car crash that killed three people. But he remains the charismatic and often autocratic leader of those the media have dubbed the Grillini.

The movement calls for an end to austerity, slashing taxes and a referendum on remaining in the eurozone. Grillo has ruled out an alliance with another party and vows that the old parties will soon be forced out of parliament.

GRILLO: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: They can't last more than six, seven months, Grillo says. We will be watching them as we pursue our program - free water, free education, free health care. If they follow us, OK, adds Grillo. Otherwise it will be a very tough battle for all those old parties.

Grillo's success was far beyond even the most optimistic surveys. Pollsters were off mark on just about all their forecasts. Political scientist Roberto D'alimonte was shocked and suggested Italians are hesitant to reveal who they really vote for.

ROBERTO D'ALIMONTE: This is the catastrophic outcome nobody predicted. Polls have lied to us, all along.

POGGIOLI: The other big surprise of the election was the resurgence of Silvio Berlusconi, who was pressured to resign 15 months ago after Italy was brought to the brink of financial collapse. He waged an intensely populist campaign like Grillo, attacking the European Union and Germany in particular and making unrealistic promises. Giuliano Ferrara, a former Berlusconi spokesman, says it was a winning strategy.

GIULIANO FERRARA: (Through translator) Berlusconi was a genius, he said, I'm going to give back all the taxes you paid last year. And this was explosive. He is the one who smiles the best, the most simpatico, the most libertarian. He is a star and this was an election of the stars.

POGGIOLI: But Enrico Letta, deputy secretary of the Democratic Party is dismayed by the message Italian voters are sending to the European partners and to financial markets.

ENRICO LETTA: (Through translator) This vote will have very heavy repercussions in Europe. The overall economic situation is weak and an ungovernable Italy will make it worse.

POGGIOLI: Even in the best of times, the government-formation process takes a few weeks. And this time there are few viable options ahead. The prospect of weeks of uncertainty is already causing great anxiety in international markets. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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