ROME — Italy's center-left leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, was given the tough task Friday to form a new and viable government, which is badly needed to steer the country out of recession and get more Italians back to work.
National elections last month produced no clear winner, but President Giorgio Napolitano said the 61-year-old Bersani was best positioned to create a government given "the most difficult circumstances" – a reference that while the political leader has a comfortable majority in the lower house, the Senate is split.
The vote made plain may voters were disenchanted with mainstream parties and largely divided over which forces should lead Italy at this delicate moment.
Bersani's forces finished first, but he has ruled out a coalition with the next-biggest vote-getter, former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's conservative alliance. Such a move would risk further alienating the voting base of Bersani's Democratic Party.
But if he shuns Berlusconi, Bersani will need to win support from Parliament's new third bloc, a populist, anti-euro movement founded by comic-turned-political leader Beppe Grillo.
Grillo has rejected a vote of confidence to support any established party – and in the required vote of confidence for a new government to go forward. Still, some Grillo lawmakers broke ranks over the weekend and voted to support Bersani's candidate as Senate speaker, indicating the comic's grip on his lawmaker's might not be iron-clad.
Nevertheless, "I don't think Bersani has a chance to put together a government," said political scientist Robert D'Alimonte.
If Bersani fails, Napolitano could tap someone else, a fresh face to politics, like newly chosen Senate President Piero Grasso, a widely respected former anti-Mafia prosecutor, said D'Alimonte, a professor at LUISS university in Rome. Grasso could be tasked to form a technical government with a specific mandate, including rewriting the electoral law.
Bersani pledged dialogue with political forces in the coming days, seeking a balance between `'a government seeking the change expected by the Italians and one able to carry out reforms."
Outgoing Premier Mario Monti's centrist forces finished fourth with around 10 percent of the vote. Monti, whose government was appointed in late 2011 to enact reforms and austerity measures to safeguard Italy from the continent's debt crisis, continues as caretaker premier until a new one is in place.
Investors are watching closely to see if Italy can form a stable government to continue on the course of reform. Italy's load of public debt has been growing, but borrowing rates have not come under pressure yet. Sentiment will be tested in a pair of bond sales next week.
Another political affairs analyst, James Walston, said the odds were against Bersani's succeeding, but predicted if the center-left leader does manage to cinch the confidence votes, the government stands a chance of lasting till spring 2014.
"It's unlikely they'd want to vote in summer. And in the fall there's business to attend do," including nailing down Italy's budget, he said.
Bersani would boost his prospects of winning over Grillo lawmakers by packing his proposed Cabinet with non-political names, said Walston, a professor at American University of Rome. Bersani has said "very explicitly that he will not use old political hacks in his Cabinet," Walston said.
So far Bersani has resisted Berlusconi's overtures for a "grand coalition" with his own party, which combines heirs of Italy's former Communists with more centrist forces. Bersani knows if he makes any sort of alliance with Berlusconi's forces "he'll be toast in the next election," Walston said.
Napolitano dismissed criticism that too much time has elapsed before tapping a potential leader. He noted that Israel and the Netherlands each took nearly two months to form governments. Italian elections were held Feb. 24-25, but Napolitano could not consult with leaders until after the new Parliament was seated last week and caucus leaders were chosen.
Colleen Barry reported from Milan.