Italy faces a prolonged period of political instability after voters on Sunday delivered a hung parliament, spurning traditional parties and flocking to anti-establishment and far-right groups in record numbers.
With votes counted from more than 75 percent of polling stations, it looked almost certain that none of the three main factions would be able to govern alone and there was little prospect of a return to mainstream government, creating a dilemma for the EU.
A rightist alliance, including former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy), held the biggest bloc of votes.
In a bitter personal defeat that appeared unlikely last week, the billionaire media magnate’s party looked almost certain to be overtaken by its ally, the far-right League, which campaigned on a fiercely anti-migrant ticket.
However, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement saw its support soar to become Italy’s largest single party by far, and one of its senior officials yesterday said that forming a coalition without it would be impossible.
Claudio Borghi, the League’s economics chief, raised the possibility of an alliance with the 5-Star Movement. Any government based on that combination would be euroskeptic, likely to challenge EU budget restrictions and be little interested in further European integration.
The full results were not due until later yesterday and, with the center-right coalition on course for 37 percent of the vote and 5-Star for 31 percent, swift new elections to try to break the deadlock are another plausible scenario.
Despite overseeing a modest economic recovery, the ruling center-left coalition trailed a distant third on 22 percent, hit by widespread anger over persistent poverty, high unemployment and an influx of more than 600,000 migrants over the past four years.
Prolonged political stalemate could make heavily indebted Italy the focus of market concern in Europe, now that the threat of German instability has receded after the revival on Sunday of a grand coalition under Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“Italy is far from having sorted its long-standing problems, and now it will have new ones. Be prepared for long and complex negotiations,” said Lorenzo Codogno, a former chief economist at the Italian Treasury.
Parliament is to meet for the first time on March 23 and Italian President Sergio Mattarella is not expected to open formal talks on forming a government until early next month.
During two months of election campaigning, party leaders repeatedly ruled out any post-election tie-ups. However, Italy has a long history of finding a way out of apparently intractable political stalemate.
The 5-Star once rejected talk of any power sharing, but it now says it is willing to discuss common policies, but not negotiate over Cabinet posts.
Led by 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, the movement was formed in 2009 and has fed off public fury over institutional corruption and economic hardship. Some have questioned whether other parties would be able to work with it.
“Di Maio wins, Italy ungovernable,” was the front page headline on La Stampa newspaper.
Borghi suggested that, with Berlusconi on course to lose the leadership of the center-right for the first time since he entered politics in 1994, a center-right headed by League leader Matteo Salvini could find a modus vivendi with 5-Star.
Borghi cited as an example the cancellation of a constitutional requirement to balance the budget.
Meanwhile, senior 5-Star member Riccardo Fraccaro said nobody would be able to govern without his party.
“We will ... [talk] with all the parties about what this country needs,” he said.
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