Italy's new parliament takes seat amid political deadlock

2013-03-16 04:20:58 GMT2013-03-16 12:20:58(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

by Eric J. Lyman

ROME, March 16 (Xinhua) -- Italy's newly-elected parliament failed to agree on its leadership Friday on its first official day as a legislative body, ending a marathon session with the same kind of stalemate as that surrounded last month's national elections.

The Feb. 24-25 vote failed to produce a clear winner, with pre-election favorite Pier Luigi Bersani surpassing controversial three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and comic-turned-political leader Beppe Grillo.

The first-past-the-post electoral system gave the center-left coalition led by Bersani's Democratic Party an automatic majority in the lower house. But none of the parties earned enough seats in the Senate to secure a majority.

Friday's negotiations were the first attempts to resolve the problem, but the process did not go well, as a full day of voting and debate failed to produce any decision on a leadership. Voting will continue Saturday.

"I think we can call this an inauspicious start to the new parliament," said Giorgio Meloni, a political observer from the University of Emilia Romagna in the northern city of Modena.

"Of course there are negotiations going on behind the scenes, and a result is still possible, but the process could have certainly started better," he said.

At the same time, some parliamentarians were confident that a deal would be made.

"I think we'll reach a leadership deal, maybe even on Saturday," said Stefano Quintarelli, who was elected to parliament for the first time in last month's vote.

The lower house has 630 members, while there are 315 senators in the upper house. One of the obstacles to selecting a parliamentary leadership is the possibility of alliances.

Bersani, who has rejected an alliance with Berlusconi's center-right forces, made overtures to Grillo's anti-establishment Five-Star Movement (M5S), but they were pushed away. According to local media, Bersani offered the M5S speakership of the lower house in return for their support to form a coalition government.

A deal between Bersani and caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti, who finished a distant fourth in the February vote, is feasible but would fall short of giving the coalition a majority in the Senate.

The problem is that without a leadership in parliament, President Giorgio Napolitano cannot start formal consultations for forming a government.

The instability until now has had a big impact on Italian and European financial markets and is cited as a factor in rising borrowing costs for Italy, relatively weak interest in Italian stocks, and a softening demand for the euro currency used in the country and 16 other European nations.

A continued deadlock will increase the likelihood that Italy might eventually be forced to default on its debts, putting the whole euro zone in jeopardy.

Even after a parliamentary leadership is decided, it will not be easy to find a way to create a coalition to form a government, and any government that takes power will be too unstable to hold onto power for long.

"The stakes are high, not just for Italy but for Europe," said Meloni, the political observer. "But the political impasse will be slow to resolve, if it can be resolved at all. The situation is serious, but it could get worse before it gets better."

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