ROME (AP) -- A comic's anti-establishment political movement that scored a stunning success in elections for Parliament has flopped in crucial local ballots across Italy -- raising questions about how much growth potential there is for a grassroots phenomenon that only weeks ago seemed destined to be a major power broker.
Beppe Grillo's upstart 5-Star Movement was touted as a new political force when it emerged from February elections with a quarter of the vote. But its refusal to engage in coalition building at a time when Italy needs in decisive leadership, coupled with a paucity of positive ideas, appears to have cost it support.
Confirmation of that may have come with this week's mayoral races. Final results across the nation dealt Beppe Grillo's upstart 5-Star Movement a dramatic setback, leaving it scrambling Tuesday for explanations. The movement failed to win any significant races or make it into runoffs in hundreds of small towns slated for June.
The May 26-27 elections saw a sharp drop in turnout, deepening a trend of apathy among voters angered by a ruling class that has failed to revive a stagnant economy or deliver on promises to reform corruption-plagued politics.
Grillo led the final campaign rally for the 5-Star candidate in Rome last week. But the comic, who peppers his tirades against traditional parties with insults, sarcasm and obscenity, drew a crowd in the capital far smaller than what he had attracted in his barnstorming campaign for parliament.
In Rome, by far the biggest City Hall up for grabs, the two top vote-getters were from Italy's two biggest parties. The center-left and center-right parties are bitter rivals forced into an awkward coalition after the February elections yielded no clear winner.
Finishing a distant second, with 30.3 percent, but with enough to earn a runoff spot, was media mogul Silvio Berlusconi's candidate -- the right-wing incumbent Gianni Alemanno. Ahead with 42.6, but short of the 50 percent-plus needed to clinch a first round victory, was Ignazio Marino, a former transplant surgeon who is a prominent figure in Premier Enrico Letta's center-left Democratic Party.
The 5-Star Movement shook up long-established parties when its electoral triumph allowed it to become the third-largest national force. But many political analysts were quick to wonder if it risked squandering its popularity through its post-election strategy of refusing dialogue with the main parties.
Its Rome candidate finished third among the 19 candidates on the ballot, taking 12.4 percent. That was a steep plunge among Roman voters, compared to the 27.3 percent the 5-Stars polled in the capital in the national elections three months earlier. Like all of the 5-Star movement's candidates, Marcello De Vito emerged after an "online primary" among supporters.
The 5-Star Movement, which rails against generous state funding for political parties and boasts that it has been the only major party to give back millions of euros in taxpayer-funded assistance, blamed tight campaign budgets in part for its poor showing in the municipal balloting.
In a sarcastic post-mortem of the election results, Grillo claimed that those who voted for the biggest vote-getters proved that there are "two Italies" -- an Italy of elites that wants to preserve the status quo and Grillo's "second, Class B Italy," which lives precariously in the financial crisis.
Political commentators and mainstream politicians had wondered for weeks whether the 5-Star Movement would score well in the local vote, especially since much of its campaigning consisted of blasting the establishment and offering few concrete ideas for how the 5-Stars would rule cities and towns worried about local jobs, crime, public transport and other services in cash-strapped municipalities.
One analyst noted on state radio Tuesday that many of Grillo's campaign stump speeches this time were "almost deserted."
The movement, said prominent political journalist Nicola Graziani, "must decide what it wants to do when it grows up."
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.