Social Democrat Pier Luigi Bersani could become the next Italian prime minister, but he may lack a parliamentary majority. Populists Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo will be pleased - unlike the rest of Europe.
"Are we ungovernable now?" presenters excitedly asked pundits on Italian TV channels Sky and Rai. No one knows for sure, because the so-called decisive election has produced a result that many had feared the most. The Milan stock exchange greeted an initial report at 3pm - that Social Democrat Luigi Bersani had secured a majority in the lower chamber - with profits and rises. But during the course of the afternoon, when, after many contradictory predictions, it became clear that Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing party would probably have a majority in the senate - the second chamber - the good mood in the markets vanished. The Milan stock market fell by close of trading.
In Italy, a majority in the first chamber is not enough. In order to be able to govern with a degree of stability, a potential Prime Minister Bersani will need a senate majority too. Both parliamentary chambers carry equal weight, and can block each other. One Social Democrat party secretary predicted that Italy could be on the way to a stalemate.
Meanwhile, a party spokesman for "The People of Freedom," as Berlusconi's party is called, was telling news channel Sky TG24 that his party was celebrating. "Berlusconi is back." Indeed, Berlusconi almost doubled his vote tally in just four weeks of campaigning. His promise to pay back an unpopular real estate tax particularly impressed his supporters.
The real winners: the Grillini
But according to analysts at the Corriere della Sera daily, the election's real winner was former comedian and now blogger Beppe Grillo. His protest movement "Five Stars" took 20 percent of the lower chamber and as much as 25 percent of the senate - not much less than the established parties that have been sitting in parliament for decades. Grillo's success is mainly a protest vote from Italy's disillusioned younger generation, believes Vincenzo Scarpetta.
"The various scandals that came to light during the election gave Grillo an extra push," wrote Scarpetta, Italy expert at the think tank Open Europe. "His proportion of the vote is a public protest against the current state of Italian politics." Grillo's supporters, meanwhile, already have their own nickname - the "Grillini."
Grillo attracted hundreds of thousands of people to his campaign events on large squares across Italy. But he himself will not take a seat in parliament. "I will observe it all from the terrace of my house in Genoa," he said, adding that he sees himself as the spokesman of a movement, rather than a politician. He has called for unconditional income for every Italian of 1,000 euros ($1,320) a month, as well as free Internet for all.
Anti-austerity candidates gather majority
Grillo is also in favor of a plebiscite on an Italian exit from the eurozone, and considers German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the driving force behind Italy's austerity measures and tax hikes. In that, he finds himself a reluctant political bedfellow of the conservative Berlusconi, who convinced his voters that Merkel had dictated the country's reforms to technocrat premier Mario Monti.
Berlusconi accused Germany of pursuing selfish policies in saving the euro, and demanded cheap credit from the European Central Bank. Together, euroskeptics Grillo and Berlusconi collected over 50 percent of the vote. "These two jokers have got half of the voters in the bag. Europe won't like that," wrote one blogger on the website of the state broadcaster RAI.
Bersani - Monti coalition likely
Bersani, who will probably be asked to form a government, wants to proceed with a weaker form of the reform course set in motion by Monti. He recognizes that Italy must get its debts - nearly 130 percent of economic performance - under control. But he also wants to take some of the tax burden off employees, and force the rich to pay.
And yet in order to govern, he must enter into a coalition with Monti, who only garnered a modest nine percent of the vote. Monti, for his part, does not like the old-school communists in Bersani's camp, who, like Grillo, are calling for a referendum on Italy staying in the eurozone. Even if Bersani and Monti manage to sign a deal, Italy experts like Lutz Klinkhammer of the German Historical Institute in Rome do not think the alliance will last long. Analysts have variously given the coalition a shelf-life of six months to a year.
Members of the European Parliament, politicians in the northern European capitals, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle had previously warned of such an outcome of the election - a shaky coalition in Rome that could weaken its consolidation program. Should the interest rates for Italy's government bonds now rise, the country may face serious payment issues.
Last summer, ECB President Mario Draghi calmed the financial markets with a resolute announcement reducing the interest burden. He may soon have to follow up on his promise that the ECB would do everything in its power to save the euro - including printing money. Draghi is an Italian himself, a former head of the country's central bank and investment banker. That means he is probably unsurprised by the political conditions in his home country.