A journalist watches a tv screen showing the first exit polls at the  Five Star Movement (M5S) press room early on March 5, 2018 after the closure of the polling stations in Rome.
A journalist watches a tv screen showing the first exit polls at the Five Star Movement (M5S) press room early on March 5, 2018 after the closure of the polling stations in Rome.

ROME - With no outright winner and the Italian parliament appearing to be hung based on early seat projections Monday, the already fractious country will be thrown into weeks of tortuous backroom deal-making and behind-the-scenes horse trading as coalition negotiations drag on, prolonging political instability in one of Europe's biggest economies.

On the face of it, Italy underwent a political revolution with voters ditching the center and riding a populist wave. Nearly half of all Italians who voted Sunday supported populist candidates, many of them once considered extremists or catalogued as fringe. The biggest beneficiaries appear to have been the upstart Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), a maverick, anti-establishment party, that seeks to upend the Italian political system, and the xenophobic Lega party, which wants migrants expelled. 

On early projections — and completing the full seat distribution could take days — M5S will emerge as the largest single party with about 32 percent of the vote but the right-wing alliance of Silvio Berlusconi, which includes the Lega, looks like it captured a 36 percent share of the vote, which will give it the largest number of seats in the lower house, from 248 to 268, short of the 316 needed to govern.

Voters clearly rejected claims by the center-left Democratic Party (PD) that things had improved under its government and the party suffered historic setbacks in its strongholds of the north and center of the country. “Voters have spoken very clearly and irrefutably. The populists have won and the Democratic Party has lost,” admitted PD lawmaker Andrea Marcucci on his Facebook page.

Italian daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano announced Monday: “Everything will change.” 

But political insiders say that isn't necessarily so. “If M5S and the Lega formed a government, which theoretically may be possible, then we would be facing a political revolution,” said an adviser to Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella. “But I think that isn't likely, despite the alarm in Brussels. Many in M5S just won't sit at the same table as the Lega..” 

People line up at a polling station near the Vatic
People line up at a polling station near the Vatican, in Rome, March 4, 2018.

The voters may have spoken but it isn't clear that Italy’s political system won't just adapt — it may just absorb the upheaval, much as it did in the 1990s when a sprawling judicial Clean Hands investigation collapsed the then dominant Christian Democrat and Socialist parties, only for Italy’s political patronage system to reassert itself and for many of the same political faces to reappear.

President Mattarella will start the formal process to form a government after March 23 and he has wide scope on how he does it and who he approaches. “The president is under no obligation to hand a mandate to the biggest party, and may first seek to establish whether parties can get together a coalition with enough seats to govern,” noted Wolfango Piccoli of the risk analysis firm Teneo Intelligence on the eve of the polls.

And at the end of it, Italy may be left with the same prime minister as before the polls, the PD’s Paolo Gentiloni.Analysts and ‘establishment’ politicians say coalition politics and parliamentary gridlock will restrict populist politicians delivering on their carefree campaign promises of tax cuts and benefit increases and mass migrant expulsions.

Gentiloni will continue on as caretaker prime minister while Mattarella oversees negotiations. And he is being tipped as the most likely to be picked by Mattarella, to head subsequently a ‘grand coalition,’ if the parties can't sort out a deal among themselves.The 63-year-old Gentiloni is widely seen as one of the few politicians with the diplomatic finesse to oversee a so-called ‘government of the president’ to stabilize Italian politics. 

“Don’t you you know your Lampedusa?” said the Mattarella adviser, referring to Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, one of Italy’s well-known 20th century writers. “He wrote, ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’”
The political Rubik's Cube Mattarella now has in his hands would try the patience of a puzzle-master. 

Various coalition combinations are possible — in theory — but they involve pushing together odd bedfellows and the M5S and the Lega are likely to prove the most awkward in their demands. Coalition negotiations risk triggering party schisms and breakaways, making the puzzle-solving for Mattarella even more challenging. Along with that, personal animosities, even among formal allies, and unchecked ambitions will complicate coalition building. 

An actor wearing a mask depicting former Italian p
An actor wearing a mask depicting former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi performs alongside billboards March 5, 2018, in Rome. The billboards were organised by the global civic movement Avaaz as a reaction to the right-wing coalition not reaching a majo

The wily, 81-year-old Berlusconi may well seek to woo defectors from others parties to see if his alliance can form a government without having to rely on it being underpinned by Mattarella. And Lega leader Matteo Salvini has already expressed his suspicion that the former three time prime minister, who had to resign in disgrace amid sex and Mafia scandals, could betray him and seek to form a government with the PD. 

Gentiloni, who was thrust into the prime minister’s job in December 2016 after his predecessor Renzi suffered a humiliating defeat in a plebiscite over constitutional reforms, has the trust of other European leaders and in recent weeks Italy’s elder statesmen, including Giorgio Napolitano, a popular former president, have been heaping praise on him, as if preparing for the eventuality of his returning to steady Italy.

Napolitano describes Gentiloni as “essential for governability.”

“Domani, dopo colazione, nulla sarà cambiato” (Tomorrow, after breakfast, nothing will have changed), said Roberto, a waiter from Rome, clapping his hands for emphasis Monday as the early projections of seat distribution were released. 

As they headed to the polls Sunday, many voters in the towns and villages north of Rome said they expected little would change after the election, even though they expected a populist surge. 

A survey published last week by the Pew Research Center, a U.S. think tank, found that more than three quarters of Italians suspect politicians do not care what ordinary people think. 

For Italy’s neighbors, weeks of party wrangling and political gridlock poses both risks and benefits. Gridlock will restrict much of what parties promised on the campaign they would do, which will come as relief to Italy’s European neighbors and to many Italians.

Nonetheless, Italy’s main stock exchange crashed Monday as the markets absorbed the still incomplete election results. Traders said they were unnerved by the voters’s spurning of traditional parties and their flocking to populist and far-right parties.

That, they say, will give the European Union another political challenge to absorb, and they worry that at the heart of a new government, euro-skeptics will rule the roost, challenge EU budget restrictions and undermine French President Emmanuel Macron’s push for greater European integration. Political observers also fear that any coalition government will be friendlier to Russian President Vladimir Putin, threatening European unity when it comes to Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia.

For migrants from Africa — or those planning on trying to reach Europe via Italy — Sunday’s election won't be good news. Any government likely to emerge will be riddled with politicians and factions pressing for tougher action against asylum-seekers already in Italy and for every effort to be made to stop migrants from reaching the shores of Italy. That will likely include continuing to maintain previous deals reached with Libyan warlords to block migrants from setting off and to deterring NGOs from rescuing migrants at sea. 

Following Sunday's election, Italian migrant organizations say they expect a dramatic increase in deportations of failed of asylum-seekers. 

While old guard Italian politicians argued Monday that gridlock and coalition-building will result in the populists from M5S and the Lega having to moderate their euro-skepticism as well as their suspicion of free markets and open societies, populists across Europe and in America welcomed the election upheaval. Marine Le Pen, a friend of Lega leader Matteo Salvini, applauded the results, tweeting: “The spectacular progression and the arrival at the top of the Lega led by our ally and friend @matteosalvinimi is a new stage in the awakening of peoples! Warm congratulations!”

European populists say populists in Italy will be further enabled and strengthened, if Sunday’s election upheaval does turn into much ado about nothing, as it will just build up more frustration that they willbe able to feed off. 

European and American populists say that the weakening of the center in Italian politics will further rattle the European Union, which has already been shaken by Britain’s decision to leave the bloc as well as the electoral weakening last year of Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany. 

On Tuesday, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who observed the Italian elections, will point to the electoral performances of M5S and the Lega in a speech in Switzerland as marking a further major stage in the building of a broader populist movement throughout Europe and America, one that will change the West’s relationship with the rest of the world, including Asia and Africa, by changing the terms of trade and reshaping international institutions, from the UN to the EU.