By James Mackenzie and Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - Sweeping wins for the center left in Italy's local elections have sounded alarms for Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo, the mavericks who emerged as the big winners from February's deadlocked national vote.
Elections on Monday in more than 500 towns and cities, including the capital Rome, saw the center left bounce back from its humiliating near-collapse after the February poll, which it had long been expected to win comfortably.
By contrast, Grillo's 5-Star Movement suffered stinging losses in Sicily, scene of one of its greatest triumphs last year, while Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) failed to win a single major city.
Roberto D'Alimonte, one of Italy's top election analysts, said Grillo suffered from the lack of credible, qualified candidates in a movement entirely dominated by its charismatic leader.
"The same thing applies to the PDL. In local voting, when Berlusconi is not candidate, it doesn't fare well. They don't have the candidates," he said.
Even Renato Brunetta, the PDL leader in the lower house, calls the party a "monarchic and anarchic" and many see its dependence on Berlusconi's proven campaign skills and understanding of the electorate as a double-edged sword.
"No Silvio, No Party", ran a headline in the right-wing Il Giornale newspaper, owned by the Berlusconi family, reflecting widespread perceptions that the PDL needs to build up a more durable base that does not depend entirely on one leader.
The Monday result may have strengthened Prime Minister Enrico Letta's Democratic Party, locked in uneasy coalition with Berlusconi after no party emerged with a majority in February, but it has complicated an already fractured political scene.
The grand coalition between the two traditional rivals on the right and left is seen as a measure of last resort even by members of the government and an unusually low turnout reflected widespread disillusion with the political system.
For Grillo, already fighting growing internal discontent over his unpredictable and autocratic leadership style, the failure to build on the protest vote that made him one of the most talked-about politicians in Europe has been a rude shock.
Having rejected repeated overtures to join a government with the center left during the prolonged stalemate that followed the election, he now appears to be paying the price for allowing Berlusconi back into government.
"The movement is coming to a stop because it didn't take its opportunities when they were offered," wrote Alfonso V. from Turin on Grillo's blog, echoing many similar comments from readers of the party's main instrument of communication.
The former comic stunned Italy by leading his 5-Star Movement from a fringe protest party to claim a quarter of the vote in the national election.
This time, his party won just two small towns and saw its vote drop sharply in Sicily, where elections last year provided the springboard for its national triumph a few months later when it sent more than 150 deputies and senators to parliament.
In Catania, the eastern city that stands in the shadow of Mount Etna, its candidate won less than 5 percent of the vote, a far cry from the result in the national election, when it won more than 31 percent in the city.
With Italy still deep in recession, youth unemployment running at nearly 40 percent and anger at the political class as strong as ever, the conditions which fuelled the movement are still in place and few would argue its day is past.
But it faces a turbulent period during which it must address the communication breakdowns and misunderstandings that have dogged it since the election and taken some of the freshness off its appeal.
D'Alimonte said he doubted whether the 5-Star Movement would ever score as strongly as it did in February but it would remain a force, especially if Letta proved a disappointment.
"If the crisis worsens and unemployment keeps going up, that could really bring about a revival," he said.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)
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