Italy left guessing over election outcome

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Rome (AFP)

Italians are used to living with political uncertainty thanks to the over 60 governments it has piled through since the republic was established after the Second World War.

The country heads to the polls on March 4 to elect its representatives in the lower house Chamber of Deputies and upper house Senate.

But with a fragmented political landscape and a complicated new electoral law in place that mixes proportional representation with first-past-the-post, the country could wake up on Monday to any one of a variety of scenarios.

- A right-wing coalition -

"It is unlikely that any of the three main contenders will be able to obtain a majority, but there is only one that can, and it's the right," says Roberto D'Alimonte, Director of the Political Science Department of Rome's Luiss University.

The right-wing coalition brings together four parties, the biggest of which are Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia (FI) and the far-right League.

An agreement between Berlusconi and League leader Matteo Salvini says that whoever comes first of the two parties will lead the government, should the coalition win a majority.

Banned from public office thanks to a tax fraud investigation, Berlusconi has said in that scenario, and with FI the bigger of the two main parties, he would like to see Antonio Tajani lead the government.

However, Tajani has not yet said whether he is ready to give up the presidency of the European Parliament.

If the League comes out on top, Salvini will be premier, assuming that Berlusconi keeps his word and lines up behind him.

- A grand coalition -

Brussels is betting on a German-style grand coalition between FI and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), both pro-EU parties.

Neither Berlusconi nor PD leader Matteo Renzi have dared suggest that they might enter into such an agreement during the election campaign, but it is exactly what happened after the last general election in 2013.

The website Votewatch Europe notes that FI's representatives in the European Parliament have voted with the PD 76 percent of the time, but only 36 percent of the time with the League.

However, there is no guarantee that the PD, FI and their Europhile allies -- perhaps even boosted by defectors from the League who have little taste for their party's recent nationalist rebrand -- will obtain enough votes to gain a majority in the upper and lower houses.

Another hypothesis, and one denied even more vigorously, is a eurosceptic alliance between the League and anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).

But that partnership would also not be guaranteed to pick up enough votes and would be subject to fierce internal opposition from within both parties.

It would also run counter to the conciliatory tone recently offered towards the EU by M5S leader Luigi Di Maio, a shift from the instinctive euroscepticism of party founder Beppe Grillo.

- No parliamentary majority -

The last available polls from mid-February gave the right-wing coalition 38 percent of voting intentions (of which 17 percent went to FI and 13 to the League), 28 percent to M5S and 26 percent to the centre-left coalition led by the PD, but with millions still undecided.

If there is no new majority in parliament, Gentiloni will remain as prime minister.

In the meantime President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella will consult the various parliamentary groups to see if there is a figure who can command a majority, and if not, new elections could be called.

Regardless of the outcome, the procedure will take its time. The two chambers will meet for the first time on March 23 to form groups in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate to elect the president of each house.