Rome: Italy faced political deadlock on Tuesday after a stunning election that saw the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo become the strongest party in the country but left no group with a clear majority in parliament. "The winner is: Ingovernability" was the headline in Rome newspaper Il Messaggero, reflecting the stalemate the country would have to confront in the next few weeks as sworn enemies would be forced to work together to form a government.
The centre-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani won the lower house by around 125,000 votes, where it will have a majority because of a premium given to the largest party or coalition.
Results in the upper house Senate indicated the centre-left would end up with about 119 seats, compared with 117 for the centre-right. Seats are awarded on a region-by-region basis in the Senate, where a majority of 158 is needed to govern. Any coalition must have a working majority in both houses in order to pass legislation. Bersani claimed victory but said it was obvious that Italy was in "a very delicate situation".
Neither Grillo, a comedian-turned-politician who previously ruled out any alliance with another party, nor Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right bloc, which threatened to challenge the close tally, showed any immediate willingness to negotiate.
Commentators said all of Grillo's adversaries had underestimated the appeal of a grassroots movement that called itself a "non-party", particularly its allure among young Italians who find themselves without jobs and the prospect of a decent future.
The 5-star Movement's score of 25.5 per cent in the lower house was just ahead of the 25.4 per cent for Bersani's Democratic Party, which ran in a coalition with the leftist SEL party, and it won almost 8.7 million votes overall - more than any other single party. "The 'non-party' has become the largest party in the country," said Massimo Giannini, commentator for the Rome newspaper La Repubblica.
World financial markets reacted nervously to the prospect of a government stalemate in the euro zone's third-largest economy with memories still fresh of the financial crisis that took the 17-member currency bloc to the brink of collapse in 2011. The euro skidded to an almost seven-week low against the dollar in Asia on fears about the euro zone's debt crisis. It fell as far as $1.3042, its lowest since January 10.
A first indication of investors' reaction to the results will come later on Tuesday when the Treasury auctions 8.75 billion euros in 6-month bonds.
Italy's borrowing costs have come down in recent months, helped by the promise of European Central Bank support but the election result confirmed fears of many European countries that it would not produce a government strong enough to implement effective reforms.
Grillo's surge in the final weeks of the campaign threw the race open, with hundreds of thousands turning up at his rallies to hear him lay into targets ranging from corrupt politicians and bankers to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In just three years, his 5-Star Movement, heavily backed by a frustrated generation of young Italians increasingly shut out from permanent full-time jobs, has grown from a marginal group to one of the most talked about political forces in Europe.
"The 5-Star Movement is the real winner of the election," said SEL leader Nichi Vendola, who said that his coalition would have to deal with Grillo, who mixes fierce attacks on corruption with policies ranging from clean energy to free Internet.
"It's a classic result. Typically Italian," said Roberta Federica, a 36-year-old office worker in Rome. "It means the country is not united. It is an expression of a country that does not work. I knew this would happen."
A long recession and growing disillusionment with mainstream parties fed a bitter public mood that saw more than half of Italian voters back parties that rejected the austerity policies pursued by Prime Minister Mario Monti with the backing of Italy's European partners.
Monti suffered a major setback. His centrist grouping won only 10.6 per cent and two of his key centrist allies, Pier Ferdinando Casini and lower house speaker Gianfranco Fini, both of parliamentarians for decades, were booted out.
"It's not that surprising if you consider how much delusion there was with politics in its traditional forms," Monti said.
Berlusconi's campaign, mixing sweeping tax cut pledges with relentless attacks on Monti and Merkel, echoed many of the themes pushed by Grillo and underlined the increasingly angry mood of the Italian electorate. Stefano Zamagni, an economics professor at Bologna University said the result showed that a significant share of Italians "are fed up with following the austerity line of Germany and its northern allies".
"These people voted to stick one up to Merkel and austerity," he said.
Even if the next government turns away from the tax hikes and spending cuts brought in by Monti, it will struggle to revive an economy that has scarcely grown in two decades.
Monti was widely credited with tightening Italy's public finances and restoring its international credibility after the scandal-plagued Berlusconi, whom he replaced as the 2011 financial crisis threatened to spin out of control.
But he struggled to pass the kind of structural reforms needed to improve competitiveness and lay the foundations for a return to economic growth, and a weak centre-left government may not find it any easier.