ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was on course for a sweeping victory in Sunday's European election with voter projections giving his centre-left Democratic Party (PD) a huge lead over the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of ex-comic Beppe Grillo.
With more than half the vote counted, a projection by IPR Marketing for RAI state television put the PD on 41.2 percent, well ahead of the 5-Star Movement on 21.4 percent with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party on 16.6 percent.
"It's an absolutely extraordinary result," said senior PD official Debora Serracchiani. "We are determined to continue with the reform initiatives the government has undertaken over the past few months which of course can now count on extraordinary legitimation from voters."
A separate projection by the EMG institute for La7 television put the PD on 41.6 percent, the 5-Star Movement on 21.7 percent and Forza Italia on 15.8 percent.
The result is set to be one of the best ever achieved by an Italian centre-left party and a triumph for the 39-year-old Renzi, who took power three months ago by forcing out his low key predecessor Enrico Letta in a party coup and pledging an ambitious reform programme.
A masterful television performer with a direct, rapid-fire way of speaking that contrasts starkly with the opaque language of many older Italian politicians, Renzi, the former mayor of Florence, had never before fought an election at the national level.
For Grillo, who fought tirelessly during a bitter campaign and who declared that he would win or give up politics, the result was a stinging defeat following the 25.5 percent he won in last year's national ballot.
As the projections came in, there was a conspicuous silence from his camp with his popular blog flooded with messages from opponents mocking his confident predictions of victory.
But it would still leave his rowdy and unconventional movement as a force in Italian politics after the collapse in support for Berlusconi, now banned from holding public office after his conviction for tax fraud.
"We'll wait until tomorrow when we have a definite result before making any comment," Roberta Lombardi, a senior 5-Star Movement parliamentarian told reporters.
With unemployment at record levels and the economy struggling to emerge from two years of recession, the election had been expected to see a strong rise in support for so-called eurosceptical parties.
Instead it vindicated Renzi's bet that Italy's voters would support his drive for reform and leaves him and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as two of the only major European leaders to emerge strengthened from the elections.
"If 40 percent of citizens have chosen the Democratic Party, it's because they're in favour of the work that has been done in these past few months," Maria Elena Boschi, minister for constitutional reform told La7 television.
However, she brushed off suggestions that the scale of the victory could lead Renzi to seek an early parliamentary election to consolidate his position.
"You could be tempted to go to a vote seeing this result, but I think it's more important to work in the interests of citizens," she said.
The government's signature achievement so far has been a tax reform that gave low earners 80 euros per month, but the election result should give new impetus to other reforms which have been held up in parliament.
In addition to reforms to the labour market and tax system, Renzi has promised a new electoral law as well as a broad overhaul of the bloated public administration and political system.
The prime minister has pledged to respect Italy's EU commitments, but wants to overturn the austerity measures preached during the euro zone debt crisis and press for a greater focus on encouraging growth and jobs.
For Berlusconi, who was barred from voting himself because of his conviction for tax fraud, the result underlines the collapse in his party's fortunes since last year's election.
Next to Grillo, who called for a referendum to decide whether Italy remains in the euro, the RAI projection put the anti-euro Northern League on 6.2 percent with the leftist Tsipras group, which is also deeply critical of many aspects of EU policy, on the threshold of getting into parliament with 4.0 percent. The New Centre Right party which supports Renzi's cross-party coalition was also on course with 4.3 percent.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; editing by Mike Peacock and G Crosse)