Rome Burning

02.26.1312:05 PM ET

Ingovernabilita! Inside Italy’s Election Limbo

Italy is in chaos after a pivotal election failed to produce a winner. Can the miraculously revived Silvio Berlusconi cobble together a coalition? Barbie Latza Nadeau reports.

One doesn’t need to be fluent in Italian to understand the post-election headlines across Italy: ingovernabilitanervosismo, miracolo Berlusconi.

Italians woke up on Tuesday morning to see their worst fears realized: the country’s first-ever hung parliament. Essentially, no one has enough support to lead the country out of its dire troubles.

After a bitter campaign, Pier Luigi Bersani’s center-left coalition narrowly won in the lower house of parliament and will benefit by an automatic winner’s bonus of 54 percent of the house seats, but he barely eked out a win in the Italian senate, where it counts. There, the divisions are based on regions, and his win does not translate to a majority. His chief nemesis, Silvio Berlusconi, who rose from the ashes of a scandalous resignation in November 2011, was able to steer his center-right coalition to within a hair of the majority, but with no willing partners to help him reach the threshold.

The big winner of these elections was Beppe Grillo, a comedian who captured the essence of Italy’s disgruntled set and has effectively become the kingmaker in both houses. His platform, which includes holding a referendum on Italy’s continuation in the euro and rethinking its involvement in military operations abroad, including logistical support in Mali, is seen as welcome change by many disgruntled Italian voters, especially the young and newly unemployed. Grillo refused to do any campaigning on Italian television and focused instead on new media, utilizing his popular blog, Facebook, and Twitter to rabble rouse.

The clear loser in these elections was Mario Monti, Italy’s most recent leader, who traded his technocrat hat for that of a politician, with miserable results. He took a calculated risk entering the quagmire of Italian politics and it backfired. Now he looks ready for the political sidelines.

No matter how one moves the puzzle pieces around, Italy has now been plunged into undeniable chaos. The options going forward are complicated and dependent on what seem like impossible sacrifices on the part of the winners and losers. But even if everyone plays nicely going forward, there is little that can be done now short of holding another ballot or forming a grand coalition that would make herding cats look easy.

On Tuesday, party leaders held emergency meetings throughout the day, and largely avoided the media—with the exception of Grillo, who was suddenly more than happy to talk to the Italian press to tout his victory. The rest started what is expected to be a long process of consultations. By some estimates, it could take three weeks to fully understand what is going to happen next.

Based on polls going into the election, Bersani was supposed to win. He would have then been able to court Monti and his list of influential politicians to join him, perhaps giving Monti the finance portfolio for his support. But Monti failed to get enough votes to give Bersani the edge he needs, and there is no one else Bersani can turn to for help, unless he can pull off a frenemy alliance with Berlusconi himself, which Berlusconi says he is “reflecting on.”

Grillo won his support based on a promise that he would not join up with any established parties, so there is little chance he’ll break that vow now (after all, if your support base is made up of protesters, you don’t want to anger them). On Tuesday he ruled out forming an alliance with any party. “But we will enter discussions for the good of the country,” he said, before offering up Italian satirist Dario Fo as his choice for president of the republic. 

Monti could also have theoretically joined forces with the center-right, but he has made it more than clear that he would not even consider it if Berlusconi is in the picture. And it seems unlikely that Berlusconi is ready to bow out, especially after such a miraculous comeback. Even if this unlikely duo were to join up, they still wouldn’t have enough seats to take control of the senate. 

That leaves as the only option the most uneasy one—forming a grand coalition that includes Bersani, Berlusconi, Monti, and Grillo. Essentially that could happen if Italian President Giorgio Napolitano steps in and demands it, possibly putting a new technocratic leader at the helm. But a scenario like that would also likely collapse in a few months, leaving Italians with another election. “Ethically, politically, ideologically, and personally there is no way that a lasting coalition can be formed, so new elections seem inevitable,” says James Walston, political analyst for the American University in Rome.

During the interim, Italy is in limbo and under the watchful eye of President Napolitano, who is nearing retirement, but whose final task is to help the politicians through one last crisis. It will be up to him to call another ballot. Ironically, when the now motley Italian parliament meets for the first time on March 15, one of its first orders of business was supposed to be to begin the process of electing the president’s replacement. Now it’s entirely possible that Napolitano will have the dubious honor of replacing them first.