How the Election Might Still Be Good for Italy

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After the stalemate, Grillo may usher in reforms -- a rarity for Italian politics.

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Five Star Movement leader and comedian Beppe Grillo speaks during a rally in Rome February 22, 2013.(Reuters)

As the polls closed on February 25, early election results made it clear that Italy's recent economic stability would not last long. No party was able to get an absolute majority in the Senate, leaving Italy ungovernable in a moment of economic crisis that most wants a strong leadership. Now, Italy faces a future of instability. But, if the cards are played well, out of the political chaos an opportunity of self-renewal might await Europe's third-biggest economy.

Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the center-left Democratic Party (PD), was expected to win the Italian elections and form a coalition government with former technocratic and centrist, Prime Minister Mario Monti. But expectations--and polls--were wrong.

Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the center-right People of Freedom (PdL), returned to the Italian political arena with a mild success insured by his usual round-the-clock media presence and his deceiving pledge to refund a much-loathed tax on first homes.

Berlusconi won 125 seats out of 630 in the lower house of Parliament and 30 percent of the seats in the Senate (for a total of 117 seats out of 315, only 6 seats fewer than Bersani's coalition). But his political persona, smeared with scandals and convictions, is gradually fading. And compared to 2008, overall he lost more than six million votes, about 50 percent.

Berlusconi's relatively weak showing, though, didn't result in the triumph of his traditional rival, Bersani's center-left PD, which got four million fewer votes than in 2008. Although Bersani won the lower house of Parliament (thanks to the majority bonus given to the winning coalition by Italy's electoral law), he failed to win the Senate, which is fundamental to govern. The result is a gridlock.

The new Italian phenomenon in these 2013 elections has a different name: Beppe Grillo. The 64-year-old former comedian entered politics with an anti-establishment agenda, at the cry of "Tutti a casa," or "everybody home." Grillo promised to cut the costs of politics, to fight against austerity measures, and to "clean" the Parliament from corruption. By being able to gather Italy's right-wing and left-wing protest votes, Grillo made his newly-formed populist Five Star Movement (M5S) the most-voted party in the lower house and the second-most voted in the Senate.

With the Italian Parliament almost equally divided between these three politically incompatible blocks­--Bersani's PD, Berlusconi's PdL, and Grillo's M5S--the razor-thin winning Democratic Party is having a hard time finding the parliamentary backing it needs to govern.

"No one really knows how they can work together," says Gianfranco Pasquino, a political scientist and professor at the University of Bologna.

The informal bargaining among politicians is still underway and a couple of the options Bersani initially had--creating a coalition with Berlusconi, for instance--have already been rejected. Bersani's policies would all clash with Berlusconi's agenda, and the center-left electorate would never accept a coalition with its historical rival, who just three days after the elections became the subject of a new corruption probe.

Another viable alternative is to create a coalition with Grillo, who in the past few days seems to have become the most influential figure in the Italian political scene.

"A lot depends on him," Pasquino says. "As we say in Italian, he's the one dealing the cards. He is the cardholder and he determines the game."

But true to his anti-establishment battle cry, Grillo has made clear that he won't ally himself with any traditional party. On the web, an M5S voter started a petition to plead Grillo to give the vote of confidence to Bersani's government, so as to stop the gridlock and actually get something done for the country.

"The M5S will not give the vote of confidence to any government," Grillo wrote on his blog on March 1. "But it will vote law by law in agreement with its political program."

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Alessandra Potenza is an Italian writer based in New York. She works at The New York Times Upfront.

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