WITH a rosary in one hand and a copy of the New Testament in the other, the leader of the Northern League, Matteo Salvini, swore himself in on February 24th as Italy’s next prime minister. No matter that Italy’s general election was not to be held until March 4th, or that his party was polling just 13% of the national vote. One day, he told his audience at a rally in the cathedral square of Milan, they would look back and say: “I was there.”

Acting like a prime minister before becoming one is not uncommon in Italy among those who aspire to the job. The day before, Luigi Di Maio, candidate of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), had gone to the Quirinal palace in Rome to tell the president, Sergio Mattarella, that he would soon be sending him the names of his cabinet. Embarrassingly for Mr Di Maio, the president chose not to receive him. Worse still, one of his putative ministers turned the job down.

The originator of this optimistically anticipatory technique was Silvio Berlusconi (pictured above right, with Mr Salvini), whose Forza Italia party is yoked to the Northern League in a right-wing electoral alliance: in 1994, he announced his entry into politics in a video showing him at a desk in a book-lined study, looking as if he were making an address to the nation. Not long afterwards, he was indeed elected.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of Italy’s bizarre election campaign this year is that 24 years on, despite a stream of sex scandals, more than 20 trials on charges ranging from false accounting to bribing judges and a conviction for tax fraud, Mr Berlusconi remains an arbiter of his country’s fortunes. He cannot be prime minister because his conviction carried a ban from public office. But he has said that he will stand if another election has to be held next year, after the ban expires. By then, Mr Berlusconi will be almost 83 years old. In the meantime, this election could boost his importance yet further.

Return of the crooner

His right-wing alliance is the only one with any hope of an outright parliamentary majority. To secure one, analysis suggests the right needs only around 40% of the vote. That is because a 3% threshold will keep numerous small parties out of parliament, and the alliance can expect to win a large number of seats in first-past-the-post contests that a new electoral system introduces. It is tantalisingly close. Polls published just before a ban in the last fortnight of the campaign show the media tycoon and his allies running at around 37%. But depending on how votes translate into seats under the new system, that might still be enough for victory. If the right did win, whether Mr Salvini or a temporary stand-in for Mr Berlusconi would be proposed as prime minister would depend on which of their parties had won more votes. Forza Italia went into the final straight with a narrow advantage in the polls.

A peculiar aspect of the campaign was Mr Berlusconi’s prolonged refusal to disclose his choice for the top job. That meant he monopolised the limelight—but since he is a talented campaigner, it may have been a wise move. On February 27th he finally plumped for the moderate, if platitudinous, president of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Antonio Tajani.

The difference between a government led by Mr Tajani and one headed by Mr Salvini, a punchy, hard-right, populist Euro-sceptic, would be considerable. It illustrates a point made by Wolfango Piccoli of Teneo Intelligence, a political-risk consultancy, about the effects of Italy’s new electoral law: “A shift of a few percentage points in voters’ preferences could have a dramatic impact on the ability to form a new government, and its eventual composition and leadership.”

The choice between Mr Tajani and Mr Salvini would at least reflect voters’ preferences. The same cannot be said of the other likely outcome—a hung parliament. No one, for example, will have voted for a “grand coalition” of Forza Italia, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and perhaps the League and some smaller parties (party leaders can ditch their allies to make new deals after the election). Yet that remains the likeliest upshot if no alliance secures an outright parliamentary majority, and a further reason for believing that Mr Berlusconi’s influence could grow.

A grand coalition, particularly if it has the incumbent prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, in charge, would certainly reassure investors. But the PD, which faces competition from a breakaway new party further to the left, has slipped in the polls to between 20% and 25%. As the dominant partner in Mr Gentiloni’s coalition, it risks further punishment because of the travel disruption caused by the snow that fell in unlikely places, including Naples and Rome, this week.

Can Mr Gentiloni keep it together?

To assemble a majority, Mr Mattarella may need to involve the inexperienced M5S which, despite a campaign marked by blundering and controversy, remains the most popular party in Italy. But with less than 30%, the M5S, which is running alone, appeared to be well short of an outright majority. The movement’s policy till now has been that until it gets one, it should not make deals with mainstream parties to get power. What remains unclear, and could force a return to the ballot box, is how far the M5S will be prepared to engage in any coalition talks after the vote.

The prospect of a hung parliament has raised fears of gridlock. But Italians have more than 70 years’ experience of solving apparently intractable political conundrums. Arguably greater than the threat to governability is that to good government. Whichever coalition emerges from the election is likely to be heterogeneous. That is inevitable in the case of a “grand coalition”, but just as likely if the right wins outright. Mr Berlusconi and Mr Salvini have repeatedly disparaged each other’s ideas. They have fallen out over Mr Salvini’s proposals for closing mosques and reintroducing conscription, their attitudes to the euro zone’s budget-deficit limit (of 3% of GDP) and the rate at which they would implement their alliance’s star pledge: a flat rate of income tax.

A further reason for concern is the lack of any serious discussion of Italy’s economic challenges during the election campaign. Marcello Messori, director of the school of European political economy at the LUISS university in Rome, notes the absence of attention to the central issue of Italy’s declining productivity. A recent Oxford Economics study found that, despite a modest increase last year, output per hour had risen by 20% less than Germany’s since 1999. “Nor have the politicians discussed another issue,” says Mr Messori. “If productivity is to be improved, there are going to be plenty of victims. People are going to be thrown out of work and will need to be retrained. They will need welfare support in the short-term. How is that going to be financed?”

Another pressing question is how Italy, with its giant debts, will cope with the rise in borrowing costs to be expected when the European Central Bank withdraws its support from the bond market. The party manifestos all contain vague promises to slash public debt. Yet they sit alongside plans for higher spending and lower taxes that would unavoidably increase it, at least in the short term, if implemented.

A study for La Repubblica, a centre-left daily, by Roberto Perotti, an economics professor at Bocconi University in Milan, calculated that the programmes of the PD, M5S and right would add €56bn ($68bn), €63bn and at least €161bn respectively to the deficit. The highest of those figures would take it to almost 12% of GDP. Long before then, however, the markets would have been seized by panic, doubtless tipping the euro zone into a second crisis.