ROME — Italy's newly elected Parliament was locked in political gridlock as it convened Friday for the first time after elections gave no party a clear victory.
The normally routine inaugural duty of electing leaders of both houses was caught in a stalemate – auguring badly for the establishment of the stable government needed to keep the eurozone's third-largest economy on a straight fiscal path while introducing growth measures to bring Italy out of recession and get more Italians back to work.
Acting Senate president Emilio Colombo – who was tapped to run the chamber until a leader can be elected because at 92 he is the oldest member of the chamber – told lawmakers that the political stalemate will hurt Italy's recovery.
It "could bring us to institutional paralysis, with dramatic consequences for ... the great social and economic problems that torment us," he said.
Despite his plea, rounds of voting in the lower house and two in the Senate ended with no winners.
Italian media employed a metaphor from the recent papal conclave, reporting `'black smoke" from both chambers, a reference to the smoke that emerges from the Vatican when cardinals fail to reach agreement on a pope.
Investors were watching the sessions closely for signs of where Italy was headed. There was more bad financial news as the new deputies and senators held the first round of voting: The Bank of Italy said the nation's debt hit a new high, topping (EURO)2 trillion ($2.6 trillion) in January.
Center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani's coalition came in first in Feb. 24-25 elections. While the extra seats given to the top vote-getters guarantees a stable majority of 345 seats in the 630-seat lower house, Bersani has no such margin in the Senate, and a two-thirds majority, or 420 votes, is needed to vote a chamber leader in the first three rounds.
Most lawmakers filed blank ballots in the early rounds, avoiding the appearance of a battle, with only members of comic-turned-political leader Beppe Grillo's 5 star movement voting for their own candidates.
Leaders were expected to be voted in further voting rounds Saturday, when the majority rules relax in both houses.
Only after leaders are chosen can Italy's president open talks on forming a government, expected next week.
Bersani attempts in recent days to persuade followers of the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement to cooperate on a leadership strategy failed. Bersani also has ruled out an alliance with former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's center-right forces, which finished second.
Berlusconi, hospitalized in Milan for an eye ailment, wasn't in Parliament. His legal team has been at odds with Milan courts as they have petitioned to postpone hearings because of the eye inflammation and courts have responded by dispatching court-appointed doctors to verify its severity.
Members of Berlusconi's party have contended the judges are trying to sideline Berlusconi politically.
As Berlusconi left the hospital Friday, after a week's stay, he was asked what were the chances a government could be formed.
If political leaders `'have a head on their shoulders, they have to do it," the former premier said.
Meanwhile, police acted on warrants for arrests for several lawmakers in the former Parliament whose immunity expired once the new legislative session opened. They included an ex-senator who admitted taking (EURO)3 million from Berlusconi to defect to his party, a move that weakened the former government of Romano Prodi.
Colleen Barry reported from Milan.