Italy's eurosceptic 5-Star Movement was dealt a blow in local municipal elections on Sunday, failing to make the run-off vote in Parma, Verona, Palermo, L'Aquila, Catanzaro, Lecce and Genoa, according to exit polls run by state broadcaster RAI.
Its only hope of making the second-round vote on June 25 was in the southern Italian city of Taranto, early results indicated.
"This is a huge defeat for 5-Star," said Matteo Ricci, head of local affairs for the ruling center-left Democratic Party (PD). "Not only are they not making the run-offs, but they are polling disastrous numbers."
"Today shows that a year after its victory in Rome, the verdict on its ability to govern at a local level is negative," Ricci said
The party's leader put on a brave face after the election defeats, vowing never to give up.
"Successes and failures are part of our history. What matters it to never give up," Beppe Grillo, a former stand-up comedian, wrote on the party blog.
Grillo said the M5S planned to win its first regional election in Sicily in November, and would take national power after that. "Our aim is to take over the government," he said.
Sunday's election called on some nine million voters in more than 1,000 towns and cities across Italy, making them a useful gauge months before a parliamentary ballot.
Center-right, center-left or independent mayoral hopefuls looked set to contest the run-off elections.
5-Star and the ruling center-left Democratic Party, led by former premier Matteo Renzi, are running neck-and-neck in national polls with around 30 percent support.
Silvio Berlusconi's center right party and Matteo Salvini's right-wing Northern League have about 13 percent support.
But Sunday's results may indicate 5-Star's shine is fading, dashing their hopes to take over the premiership.
After rising in popularity, 5-Star has been beset by local infighting and a series of scandals in Rome and Turin after their candidates won mayoral seats last year.
5-Star may be following the path of other anti-establishment parties across Europe, with the Front National in France, the anti-EU group UKIP in Britain and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) all stumbling in polls.
Party leader Grillo attacked media outlets for exaggerating his party's setbacks.
"The results point to our slow, but relentless growth. But all the front pages are dedicated to the failure of the Five Star Movement," the comedian said, accusing commentators of "gloating" and "deluding themselves" about the looming demise of the M5S.
cw/jm (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)