On the first day of Italy's two-day general election, there was little doubt that comedian Beppe Grillo's upstart, anti-establishment Five Star Movement was poised to make a big political splash in a country growing weary of old political faces.
The last official polls – no polls may be published in the final two weeks before the vote – gave the Five Star Movement, known as M5S, at 18.8 per cent. But unofficial polls leaked in recent days put M5S at 20 per cent or higher – a solid third place showing that worries many Italians: Would the presence of 100 or more M5S parliamentarians, most of whom are young and lack political experience, make the Italian government even more dysfunctional than it already is?
M5S's success could deprive Italy of a stable majority government. The lower house probably will go to Pier Luigi Bersani's centre-left coalition but the senate is up for grabs, polls suggest. If no party wins the senate, potentially messy coalition negotiations will take place. If they fail, Italy would face another election.
Some voters think a parliament with so many M5S candidates (Mr. Grillo is not actually running for election himself) could create chaos, since most are political neophytes who don't understand lawmaking and who vow to shake up the system by putting all parliamentary events and meetings on the Internet, for all Italians to see. "This is all craziness," said Fabio Pompili, 48, a Rome ambulance driver who intends to vote for Mr. Berlusconi. "How much chaos can we stand?"
In all, 28 parties clutter the election lists. But many voters filing out of the voting booths at a school on Rome's ancient Aventino hill on Sunday – the polls close Monday afternoon – said they had voted for M5S, a party that was widely dismissed as a go-nowhere niche player less than a year ago.
Mr. Grillo, who is 64 and from Genoa, proved them wrong. Sergio Brescia, a dentist who used to support Silvio Berlusconi, the three-time prime minister who is fighting his sixth and last campaign, said he switched to the Grillo camp this time around. "It was a protest vote," he said. "I want to see if he can change anything. Let's stop with corruption. This is the big thing."
Violante Pallavicino, a Rome psychologist and environmental activist, said she is voting for M5S in the Senate because she is sick of the current crop of politicians and the corruption scandals. There are separate votes for the lower house, called the chamber of deputies, and the individual regions.
"I just cannot think about having the same people in parliament again," she said. "But I have to admit I don't like Grillo at all. His movement is not democratic. He decides everything. Still, we have to change things."
James Walston, a professor of international relations at the American University of Rome, said in his blog that "it is certainly extraordinary the sort of unlikely people who say they will vote for Grillo. The majority are indeed younger disillusioned left-wing voters but there are a good number of ex-Berlusconi people."
Some political commentators think M5S is more likely to steal votes from centre-right than the centre-left. If that happens, it's bad news for Mr. Berlusconi, whose centre-right People of Freedom (PdL) party had done surprisingly well in the polls, reaching about 28 per cent, second only Mr. Bersani's Democratic Party (PD) and well ahead of caretaker prime minister Mario Monti's centrists. But the PdL has had enormous trouble closing the gap in the last couple of weeks. For that, it can probably blame Mr. Grillo.
As M5S rises, both Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Bersani have been dismissive of Mr. Grillo, who wants to overhaul the sclerotic judiciary, restructure debt payments, hold a referendum on membership in the euro zone and, most of all, rid parliament of the old burnouts and crooks. "Thieves, thieves," he yells at rallies. "Send them packing!"
Mr. Bersani says that Mr. Grillo's economic policies, such as his plan to freeze interest payments on Italy's groaning national debt, could lead to disaster. "With him, we'll be worse off than Greece," Mr. Bersani said. "We will say goodbye to democracy."
If Mr. Grillo's last campaign rally was any indication, M5S's popularity could surprise on the upside. On Friday evening in Rome's vast San Giovanni square, the famously energetic Mr. Grillo attracted 500,000 or more people, according to various estimates, making it one of the biggest political rallies ever seen in Italy.