ITALY votes on March 4th in an election that seems sure to throw up a badly hung parliament. The vote will probably be followed by lengthy negotiations between the country’s political parties, and possibly another election later in the year if talks fail to produce a government. The outcome is particularly hard to predict because this year’s contest will be the first to use Italy’s complex new mixed-member electoral system. About a third of legislators in the new parliament will compete for seats on a first-past-the-post basis; two-thirds will be allocated proportionally from lists drawn up at party level.

Among individual parties, the populist Five Star Movement is expected to do best in the proportional contests, but may struggle in the first-past-the-post races because its candidates tend to be less well-known to voters. Polling at only around 30%, it is unlikely to win a majority. It used to rule out making deals with any of the country’s mainstream parties, but seems increasingly open to joining a coalition. 

A centre-right coalition of parties may do better overall. It includes Forza Italia (led by the former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi); the Northern League, which is critical of the EU and has secessionist roots; and a far-right party, the Brothers of Italy. Silvio Berlusconi, who spent nine years as prime minister in three separate stints, is barred from office because of a tax fraud conviction. One possibility is that he would name a loyalist as prime minister, perhaps Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament. But it will probably fall short of a majority.

In third place is the left-of-centre Democratic Party (PD), which runs the current government but has cratered in the polls, in part because of the fading popularity of its leader, Matteo Renzi, a former prime minister.

The likeliest result is a messy stalemate, in which nobody can form a government alone and many players have a veto. It may then be up to the president, Sergio Mattarella, to pick a compromise candidate. Italy’s current prime minister, the urbane Paolo Gentiloni, may yet re-emerge as the only man acceptable to enough factions to stitch together a new government.