‘Black smoke’ over Rome as MPs and senators reconvene

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Italy’s new parliament met yesterday for the first time since last month’s inconclusive election, with no sign of a deal to end the stalemate and yield a government able to address the deep problems that helped topple Silvio Berlusconi’s government in 2011.

The parties have so far failed to find a way out of the impasse created by the election, which left the centre-left with a majority in the lower house but without the numbers to control the senate and form a government.

Without that, an early return to the polls is the likely alternative, bringing more uncertainty and the threat of a renewed bout of the financial market turmoil.

Italian media employed a metaphor from the recent papal conclave, reporting “black smoke” from both chambers, a reference to the smoke that emerges from the Vatican when cardinals fail to reach agreement on a pope.

Attempts by centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani to reach an accord with Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment 5-Star Movement have been rebuffed, and Mr Bersani has ruled out any deal with ex-premier Berlusconi, whose centre-right bloc is the second-biggest force in parliament.

“We are ready for anything,” Roberta Lombardi, the 5-Star Movement’s parliamentary leader in the lower house, told reporters when asked if she was prepared to go back to the ballot box.

The task of the 630 lower house deputies and 315 senators sitting yesterday was to elect the speakers, who hold two of the highest offices of state and play a central role in managing the parliamentary agenda.

They are elected in a complicated process involving repeated rounds of voting that will amount to the first concrete test of the parties’ ability to work together after the bitter election campaign.

The centre-left’s majority means it can control the result in the lower house, but, paradoxically, appointing a speaker from the 5-Star Movement would be a stronger signal that Mr Bersani can organise the numbers to be able to govern.

No result is expected until at least three rounds of voting are completed, with the main blocs likely to cast empty ballots in initial rounds in a tactical battle to sound out each other’s intentions. The process will not be completed until today.

Michela Biancafiore, a deputy from Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party considered close to the former premier, said she expected Mr Bersani’s Democratic Party (PD) would fail to reach a deal with Mr Grillo and end up voting for one of its own members.

“That will mean that the PD will remain without a majority in the senate and we’ll be voting again in June,” she told reporters on the sidelines of the sitting.

The election of the speakers will prepare the way for president Giorgio Napolitano to begin formal consultations with party leaders next week to see if there is any prospect of an agreement over a government.

Underlining the instability, an opinion poll yesterday showed the 5-Star Movement had maintained its support in the three weeks since the election, suggesting that any return to the polls could well produce a similar result.