Italy’s Elections: Split Vote Yields No Clear Winner and an ‘Unholy Mess’

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Waiting for vote results at the headquarters of Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party in Rome on Feb. 25, 2013

What Italy needed was stability. What it got was anything but. After a lackluster campaign, the front-running center-left candidate Pier Luigi Bersani fell short of being able to being able to form a government, leaving the third largest economy in the crisis-hit euro zone adrift and headed toward choppy waters.

More than nine hours after polls closed Monday, with workers still counting the last of the ballots, Bersani’s coalition seemed to have secured a narrow margin in the national vote for the lower house of Parliament, with 29.6% compared with 29.2% for his nearest challenger, the former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his allies. But while the result was enough to secure a majority in the lower house, in the Senate Bersani fell short of the absolute majority he would need to secure a complete victory. “At a moment when we’re in the middle of a financial crisis, the center-left never had a clearly explained economic policy,” said Duncan McDonnell, a fellow in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence. “Their idea was, We’ll sit still at the edge of the river and eventually Berlusconi’s corpse will float past. Well, it never did.”

(MORE: How Berlusconi May Upend the Italian Elections)

The Italian people and global economy aside, the biggest loser of the night was Mario Monti, the former E.U. commissioner who was appointed Prime Minister in November 2011, with whom Bersani had hoped to form an alliance. Monti had 14 months in office to make the case, little known in Italy, that flexibility and competition bring welfare. He never did. Instead, he allowed himself to be defined by unpopular austerity measures, in particular a housing tax that Berlusconi promised not only to repeal but also to refund. Monti ended the night with 10.6% of the vote, enough to win his coalition a handful of seats in Parliament, but not enough to play the kingmaking role at which his strategy was aimed. Ironically, the chances are that he would have fared much better if he hadn’t entered the race at all. He would have retained the chance of having his term as Technocrat in Chief extended by politicians uncertain how to proceed.

The winner, on the other hand, was the Five Star Movement, a group of political novices campaigning on a platform of repealing austerity who secured 25.5% of the vote. On the Friday before the elections, their leader, Beppe Grillo, had attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters in a rally in center Rome. They finished the night as the largest party in the country (since Berlusconi’s and Bersani’s blocs are cobbled-together coalitions), and should they manage to hold together, the potential to be a major player in Italian politics. “We’re going to be an extraordinary force,” Grillo said in a live stream on his website as the votes were being counted, pointing out that his group’s success had come with no public financing. “Bersani, Berlusconi, they are failed men,” he added. “They’ve brought catastrophe onto this country.”

(MORE: Why Mario Monti Is the Most Important Man in Europe)

The way forward is less than clear. Bersani’s allies and deputies have dismissed the possibility of new elections or what Italians call a grand coalition, a merger of rivals similar to the one that supported Monti. But they have yet to offer a realistic alternative. Adding to the confusion is the inexperience of the newly minted parliamentarians of the Five Star Movement, who have pledged not to form alliances with the established parties they see as the cause of Italy’s misfortune. “Chances are it’s going to be an unholy mess,” says McDonnell. “All of them are going to be first timers. They don’t even know how to give interviews. How is it going to work when these guys are coming out [of Parliament] every day, with microphones stuck in their faces?”

Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano’s five-year term ends in May. His replacement will need the support of two-thirds of the Parliament. Italy remains one of the most heavily indebted countries in Europe, much of which it will need to refinance in the coming days. The country is also badly in need of reforms to its electoral laws — especially if it’s headed toward a quick return to the polls. Berlusconi, in the meantime, has asked for the vote to be counted again. “Tomorrow, I’m afraid to see the market reaction,” says Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at Rome’s LUISS University. Italian instability threatens to spread once again.