Uncertainty remains as Italy produces divided poll result

Silvio Berlusconi holds his ballot paper high for the photographers. Picture: AP
Silvio Berlusconi holds his ballot paper high for the photographers. Picture: AP
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ITALY faces political and economic uncertainty following an election in which no political group was able to establish outright control.

The failure by Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left coalition to capitalise on its lead in pre-election polling risks derailing the programme of reforms set in motion by outgoing prime minister Mario Monti, raising fears of restoking Europe’s debt crisis.

“If things stay like this, the next parliament will be ungovernable,” said Enrico Letta, the secretary of the centre-left ­Democratic Party.

Early results suggested the centre-left coalition would secure a majority in the lower house of parliament, thanks to a bonus in seats given to the leading coalition. Initial results also showed the coalition leading the race in the senate, but Italy’s complex electoral law rewards parties that win in large regions such as Lombardy, where Mr Berlusconi appeared to triumph. He also looked set to pick up Sicily and Campania.

A projection based on 75 per cent of results gave Mr Berlusconi’s coalition 127 seats in the senate, more than Mr Bersani’s 112. The centre-left had counted on an alliance with Mario Monti in the senate if the race was tight, but the ex-prime minister could only muster about 21 seats, making the total well short of the 158 needed for a majority. This left no clear winner in the senate.

“This is country split down the middle,” said Alessandra Moretti, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party.

Initial exit polls yesterday had given a solid victory to the centre-left in both houses of parliament, only to be contradicted an hour later as initial results were published, suggesting Italians leaving voting booths were reluctant to say they voted for Mr Berlusconi and Mr Grillo.

Despite stepping down in 2011 as Italy’s plummeting economy dragged it into the epicentre of the Europe debt crisis, Mr Berlusconi managed a remarkable comeback. Results showed his attacks on Mr Monti’s austerity policies and on Germany’s call for austerity hit home, as did his promise to hand back an unpopular property tax.

The Democratic Party may come to regret nominating Mr Bersani, an uninspiring speaker, as leader in a primary last year over Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, who is more dynamic.

The biggest surprise of the day was the huge turnout for comic Beppe Grillo, who took about 24 per cent of senate votes, suggesting he will send 53 senators into parliament, after packing piazzas up and down Italy with his firebrand attacks on Mr Monti’s austerity package and on the privileges enjoyed by Italy’s political class.

“Honesty is coming into fashion,” he tweeted as results started to come in.

In the lower house, Mr Grillo’s 5 Star Movement took almost 26 per cent of votes, more than the 20 per cent taken by Mr Berlusconi’s Freedom People party, though Mr Berlusconi’s coalition as a whole took about 27 per cent. Mr Monti took 10 per cent.

A survey by British think-tank Demos found that only 8 per cent of Mr Grillo’s supporters trust the government and only 3 per cent trust political parties. Beyond his core support of young, internet-savvy Italians, the comic also attracted the votes of middle-class professionals who wanted to send a strong message to Italy’s politicians after years of scandals

“All the candidates are really excited,” said Laura Pizzotti, 52, an IT specialist who stood with Mr Grillo as a senate candidate. “Now I am ready to go to work.”

But Stefano Fassina, an economy spokesman for Mr Bersani, warned the so-called “Grillini” may have to wait.

He said: “The scenario from the projections we have seen so far suggest there will be no stable government and we would need to return to the polls.”

The Democratic Party’s Enrico Letta said: “Based on these projections, more than half of Italians expressed a vote against austerity, against the euro, against Merkel.” German leader Angela Merkel has urged Italy to cut spending.

At just under 75 per cent, the turnout was the lowest in national elections since the republic was formed after the Second World War.