Italy’s parliamentary election could not have gone worse for the country or the euro area.
It is now possible that in the coming months the currency zone’s third-largest economy will need a bailout from international creditors, at a time when Italy will have no government in place to ask for, or negotiate, a rescue. In case you had any doubts, the euro-area crisis is back.
As has so often been the case in Italy, the political gridlock has come in the Senate. Neither Pier Luigi Bersani’s center-left coalition, nor the center-right led by Silvio Berlusconi managed to win a majority, in a political system where a government needs the support of both houses in order to get anything done.
Even more worrisome, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which has called for a referendum on whether Italy should keep the euro, has emerged as a major political force with a quarter of the vote.
Most observers had expected a partnership between Bersani’s Democratic Party — which scraped a win in the lower house — and Prime Minister Mario Monti’s centrists to get a majority in the Senate. But Monti scored just 10.6 percent of the vote, while Berlusconi and Grillo did better than expected in regions that are key to winning the Senate.
Italy now has a long road to travel before it can put together a government able to pursue the painful changes to the economy that the markets and the European Central Bank demand. Financial markets hadn’t priced in such an inconclusive result, and the selloff of Italian assets that it triggered this week will probably continue, pushing up the country’s borrowing costs.
The bottom line is that Italy will almost certainly have to hold a second election; the only real question is when. In the meantime, there are four central scenarios for attempts to form a government.
The first would be for Bersani and Monti to create a minority coalition in the Senate, with Berlusconi offering his support in exchange for certain measures to be passed. This kind of horse trading would be unstable, and we could expect Berlusconi to withdraw his backing at the first hint that he wasn’t getting his way. “Il Cavaliere” (the Knight), as Berlusconi is known, has a long track record — it was he who forced early elections.
A second possibility is that the center-left and center- right could form a grand coalition. The difficulty here is that Berlusconi’s and Bersani’s partner on the left, Left Ecology Freedom party leader Nichi Vendola, has already ruled this out. The third option is a coalition between Berlusconi and Grillo in the Senate, the least likely outcome of all, given Grillo’s disdain for his fellow comedian.
The final possibility is for Grillo to join forces with Bersani and Monti. The Five Star Movement leader has insisted throughout the election campaign that he would not partner with other parties, and may stick to this line to maintain his anti- establishment credentials. Even if Grillo changes his mind, it seems unlikely that he will sit quietly on the sidelines while Bersani and Monti pursue a policy of structural reform and austerity. So this arrangement would also be unstable.
What all of these potential governments have in common is that it would be politically impossible for them to implement the kinds of changes to Italy’s spending, labor and product markets that the bond markets, the ECB and potential creditors, such as Germany and the International Monetary Fund, would want to see. We could expect any of these arrangements to collapse quickly.
Nevertheless, a parliament will have to be formed, because in Italy, the president of the republic holds the power to call a vote, and President Giorgio Napolitano is near the end of his term. So before new elections can be held, parliament must choose a new president to call them.
The new parliament will probably also want to pass an electoral law, which should be reasonably easy to do, if the center-left, the centrists and Grillo can form a temporary coalition. All three groups are in favor of reducing the number of provinces and members of parliament, as a way of lowering the cost of politics. Any other political permutation would see protracted wrangling over an electoral law.
Electing a president, passing an electoral law, holding a new election and forming a new government will take time. In the interim, investors will be concerned that Italy may be unable to repay its loans. Italy has the world’s third-largest debt pile, at $2.16 trillion and 126 percent of gross domestic product, with 273 billion euros ($356 billion) due for repayment this year. Voters not only failed to bring to power a government that can implement the reforms necessary to stabilize Italy’s mountain of debt, but roughly half of them cast a ballot for anti-austerity parties (Berlusconi’s center-right coalition and Grillo’s Five Star Movement). Italy clearly suffers from an advanced case of austerity fatigue.
Worst of all, the country could be shut out of debt markets at a time when it cannot make use of the support mechanisms that exist for such an occasion. If investors decide that buying Italian debt is not worth the risk and Italy loses market access, the government could normally request support from the European Stability Mechanism — the European Union’s bailout fund –and the ECB’s Outright Monetary Transactions bond-buying program.
In order to use these mechanisms, the Italian government would have to agree to a series of structural reforms and fiscal targets that are stricter than those the country has been pursuing. If the government in place cannot make progress on the latter, it can’t credibly sign up to the former. No conditionality means no access to Europe’s bailout fund and no ECB bond purchases. Without access to the markets or to these support mechanisms, Italy could face a default.
The euro area has shown itself adept at crafting last- minute solutions when pushed to the brink, so that could happen again. But, by nature, this will be an extremely unsettling time for a currency area whose collective economy is already under severe strain.
These are significant risks before a second ballot takes place. There is also a chance that a second election might deliver a majority to Berlusconi or — even worse — to Grillo. It is too early to guess what the results of a second election might be, or who would even run in them. What is clear is that Italy and the euro area are in for some rough months ahead.
Megan Greene is a Bloomberg View columnist and chief economist at Maverick Intelligence. She is also a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.