Where to go next, Italy?

Italy inched closer to reality this week, as Pier Luigi Bersani, the nominal winner in last month’s vote, was refused by leader of Five Star Movement (M5S) Beppe Grillo in a demand for jointly forming a new government.

The Colosseum in Rome
The Colosseum in Rome

Italians voted on Feb. 24 and 25 without producing a clear winner, leaving a stalemate involving center-left leader Bersani, independent party leader, former comic Grillo, and center-right leader, three-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, with each controlling a block of votes too small in senate to be able to form a government without help from one of the other rivals.

Incumbent Primie Minister Mario Monti finished fourth in the vote, with too little support to play a role in breaking the deadlock.

By virtue of winning a clear majority in parliament’s lower house, Bersani is in the strongest position. But he has said he refuses to discuss forming a symbolic coalition together with Berlusconi’s forces, and he has balked at the idea of voting to another technocrat government like the one Monti headed.

Without control of the lower house, an alliance between Grillo and Berlusconi — unlikely in any case — would be useless. That leaves a linkup between the forces of Bersani and Grillo as the only legitimate option if a new election is to be avoided.

The trouble is, Grillo appears to have no interest in forming an alliance with Bersani, calling the former minister a “political stalker” and repeatedly stating he has no interest in striking a deal.

“We have said it several times, we will not give a vote of confidence to a government led by political parties,” said Vito Crimi, freshly selected as the leader in the Senate for Grillo’ s political movement.

For their part, advisors to Bersani continue to insist they will strike a deal to form a government by the time the new parliament takes its place March 15. But there was no indication how Bersani believed he could win a confidence vote in the Senate without an alliance. Bersani’s bloc won 123 seats in the 315-seat chamber, 35 short of the number needed to have a majority.

“We have 468 parliamentarians: double was the right [Berlusconi] got and triple the number Grillo won,” Bersani said in an interview carried by state broadcaster RAI, referring to his bloc’s total parliamentary representation, including the lower house.

“So it is clear we will have the first word,” he added.

It is not yet clear who will have the last word, but it is increasingly likely it could be the Italian voters. It is possible that the political posturing from the three main blocs is part of a strategic end game that will ultimately result in an alliance. But if the situation remains deadlocked for long, a new set of elections is looming as an increasingly likely outcome.

But even that option has its obstacles: Italian President Giorgio Napolitano cannot dissolve parliament and call new elections during the last six months of his term, which ends May 15. That means parliament will have to be seated, elect a new president, who would then have to dissolve parliament and call for new elections. The fastest all that could happen, experts say, is by June or July.

And even if new elections are held, there is no guarantee the results will not be substantially similar to the last vote unless there is an electoral reform first.

A previous reform changed the rules for representation in parliament’s lower house, and a similar reform could assure that a further round of voting could assure a majority in the Senate as well.

But a reform like that could require a new technical government, charged not with economic reforms like the Monti government, but with electoral reforms. However, that’s an avenue that most of the major players have indicated they would block.

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