ON March 4th Italians will vote in a general election widely regarded as the most important in Europe this year—and the one with the greatest potential for tipping the euro zone back into crisis. Two of the main parties in contention are sceptical about the single currency. One is the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S). The other is the right-wing populist Northern League led by Matteo Salvini, which forms part of a broader electoral alliance forged by the former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. All the main contenders, moreover, have been making extravagant promises that threaten to increase Italy’s budget deficit and its already huge public debt (132% of GDP at the end of 2016). Any loosening of Italy’s public finances could send the interest rates on its existing debt soaring. The outcome matters. But who will win?

It is not a trick question. But there is a trick answer: it will not necessarily matter. It is highly likely the crucial decisions will be taken after polling day. The M5S will probably get the greatest number of votes: the last polls to be released before a ban on their publication took effect on February 17th gave the movement an average 28%. But that would not give it a parliamentary majority and the M5S has so far eschewed co-operation with the mainstream parties (though its candidate for prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, clearly wants to change that). Parties in Italy are not bound to their electoral allies after polling day. So a populist coalition between the M5S and the League, while unlikely, is not unthinkable.

The only electoral alliance with a chance of winning an outright majority is Mr Berlusconi’s, which was polling at around 37%, against 28% for a centre-left alliance spearheaded by the Democratic Party (PD). Led by Matteo Renzi, who was the prime minister until late 2016, the PD is also the dominant partner in the coalition government of Paolo Gentiloni. But it has been severely weakened by defections and competition from a new, more radical party on the left, Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal). If the right were to win a majority, the crucial issue would be whether the League or Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia received more votes, since their two leaders have agreed that whichever has greater success should get the right to choose the prime minister.

All the polls, however, pointed to a hung parliament. That could produce a deadlock of the kind the European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, has said he fears. But it might also produce the outcome the markets favour: a coalition of Forza Italia and the PD, perhaps headed by the reassuring Mr Gentiloni. Whether they are right to want it is debatable. Forza Italia and the PD have very different ideas on running the economy and could find it difficult to agree on the structural reforms Italy keenly needs. The 81-year-old Mr Berlusconi could not be prime minister: he is barred from public office because of a conviction in 2013 for tax fraud. But he would have a decisive influence on any centre-right/centre-left government. And investors seem to have forgotten that it was his inept response to the euro crisis in 2011 that brought the single currency to the brink of disaster.