The Italian Almanac

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Beppe Grillo

What a Mess

Italy faces the risk of being mired in political gridlock after general election failed to produce a clear winner. Pier Luigi Bersani's centre left won outright control of the House, even though it only had 124,407 votes more (0.36%) than Silvio Berlusconi's centre right, thanks to the allocation of bonus seats that goes to the winning alliance. But it had only 119 seats in the Senate, with a handful of seats still to be assigned, compared to 117 for the centre right.

Both blocs were distant from the magic number of 158 needed to have a working majority in the upper house, in part because comedian Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) sent shock waves through the system by making huge gains. Both the centre left and the centre right said they were not in favour of returning to the polls in the near future in order to get a clear winner. Berlusconi was open to the hypothesis of working with Bersani - which Bersani later rejected - but he ruled out striking a deal with the reform ticket of outgoing Premier Mario Monti.

Although Berlusconi did not have enough seats to form a government for the fourth time, his supporters have heralded the result, as his coalition was trailing by double figures in the polls at the start of the campaign. The centre left, which had been leading in the the polls throughout the campaign, was stunned by the outcome. Center-left leader Bersani said the results showed Italians had rejected "politics as usual" and had refused to accept "inefficient institutions and politics that seem to have lost moral credibility".

The only real victors were the M5S, which claimed 25.55% of the votes for the House, more than any other individual party, and winning 108 seats. Grillo's Internet-based movement, which won 54 seats in the Senate, tapped into public disenchantment with the established parties caused in part by a series of corruption scandals and by the political class's failure to address the country's economic ills. "We have become the biggest party in three years (since the movement was founded) without (public) money, without ever having accepted a single (electoral expense) reimbursement," Grillo said via Twitter.

Monti, who took the helm of an emergency technocrat government after Berlusconi was forced to resign in November 2011 because Italy's debt crisis was threatening to spiral out of control, registered only 10.56% of the vote in the House. This won his alliance 45 seats there. It took 9.13% in the Senate, only just above the 8%-entry threshold, winning 18 seats. Nevertheless, he said he was happy.

Meanwhile international leaders, who are anxious to see how the fallout of the elections in the eurozone's third-largest economy will impact the global economic crisis, expressed their faith in the Italian political system. EU Commissioner for Economic Affairs Olli Rehn expressed his confidence in the capacity of President Giorgio Napolitano to find a solution to the uncertainty of no clear parliamentary majority.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said "Italy will find its way" out of its election impasse, but Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Lib Dem group in the European parliament, was less certain. "The European Union also has its share of responsibility because it failed to answer Mario Monti's repeated calls for help in lowering interest rates on public debt," he said. Verhofstadt added that European leaders needed to "learn the lesson" resulting from the Italian elections, referring to gains by populist forces led by Berlusconi and Grillo, who together won more than half of the popular vote.