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Italian populists declare new epoch after election victory

Italy’s election saw support for anti-establishment parties, led by the Five Star Movement, but none of the three main factions will be able to govern alone. (Video: Reuters)

ROME — Italy’s victorious anti-establishment forces declared a new epoch of their country’s political life on Monday, hours after an election demolition of the traditional parties that dominated the nation for decades.

Both the surging populist Five Star Movement and the anti-migrant far-right League party (formerly called Northern League) claimed a win after Italians cleared their rivals and left them as the most potent forces in the country. The shift all but guarantees an anti-establishment leader for Italy and was a powerful display of Italians’ fury with old-line politicians and with the European Union in Brussels.

Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio compared the day to other monumental moments in Italian history when the old political order was swept out the door.

“Today, for us, the third republic commences,” Di Maio said. “At last, the republic of Italian citizens.”

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With 99 percent of the vote counted Monday evening, the traditional center-left and center-right parties combined had only managed to beat Five Star’s 32.6 percent vote total by a sliver of a percentage point — an extraordinary collapse for them and a confirmation of the new populist power.

And well over half of Italians voted for E.U.-skeptic parties that have questioned Italy’s use of the euro currency and its alliance with the West against Russia. The League, whose leader Matteo Salvini last year signed an agreement with the political party founded by Russian President Vladimir Putin, claimed its own victory Monday with 17.4 percent of the vote. They now stand astride a center-right coalition, which received 37 percent of the vote, and in which they had been forecast as junior partners.

“I see this as a vote for the future,” Salvini told supporters Monday. “I am and will remain a populist, one of those who listens to the people and does their duty.”

With the shattered landscape leaving no single force with a clear route to power, it remained unclear Monday whether the Five Star Movement or the League would get the first chance at trying to form a coalition. Either is likely to make Europe’s establishment nauseous. If Salvini came to power, he would be Western Europe’s first far-right leader since 1945. Di Maio, meanwhile, questions European integration and rules that restrict free spending. The two parties could also ally with each other because they share many views about the economy. But many analysts say a coalition is unlikely because Five Star’s largely left-wing voters might be repelled by the League’s anti-migrant stances.

The choice of which party gets the first chance to form a government will be made by Italian President Sergio Mattarella. Many here expect the haggling will last months.

The results marked a possible final chapter in the long political career of Silvio Berlusconi, who pioneered the entertainment-to-politics track later followed by Donald Trump. The 81-year-old former prime minister led his center-right Forward Italy to a surprise weak result of 14 percent.

And former center-left prime minister Matteo Renzi, who resigned in December 2016 following a referendum defeat, abandoned his comeback attempt Monday after his Democratic Party won 18.7 percent of the vote — less than half of what it received in 2014 in elections for the European Parliament.

“A clear defeat,” Renzi said, adding he would quit leadership of his party.

Analysts said that even as the results were messy, the combined power of the anti-system candidates pointed to one clear victor: anger.

“There are two sides of this common root: rage and of rebellion against the political elites,” said Massimiliano Panarari, who teaches politics at LUISS, a university in Rome.

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.

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