THE populist earthquake experienced in Italy’s general election on March 4th arose from deep fissures; none deeper than the eternal split between Italy’s north and south. The success of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which took nearly a third of the overall vote to become the biggest party, resulted largely from the support it received in the neglected mezzogiorno,the south, where GDP per head is less than two-thirds of the national average and almost half of 15- to 24-year-olds are without a job. In Sicily every one of the seats decided on a first-past-the-post basis went to the M5S. That places its leader, Luigi Di Maio (pictured, right, with the movement’s founder, the comedian Beppe Grillo), in pole position to demand the top job.

The results also reflected alarm, especially in the north, over uncontrolled immigration and its perceived effects on law and order. The campaign was held in the shadow of a drive-by shooting spree on February 3rd in the town of Macerata that left six African immigrants wounded. The far-right gunman, who had run for local office for the Northern League, said he was avenging the murder of a young woman for which three Nigerians have been arrested. In Macerata the League’s share of the vote leapt from less than 1% at the 2013 election to 21%. Nationally, the League (it dropped the “Northern” to seek votes in the south) won 17%. That was three percentage points higher than the more moderate Forza Italia party of Silvio Berlusconi, a former prime minister. It allowed the League’s combative boss, Matteo Salvini, to assume the leadership of the alliance in which the two parties had fought the election alongside two smaller ones. The conservative bloc won 37% of the vote. If it holds together it will be the biggest in parliament, giving Mr Salvini a strong claim to be prime minister too.

The marginalisation of the 81-year-old Mr Berlusconi highlighted another characteristic of the biggest rearrangement of the political landscape since he stormed onto the scene in 1994: like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, it was a thundering rejection of the establishment. That was an arguably heartening result. A defect of Italian politics, especially in the south, has long been the role of patronage—voters offering support to local power brokers in the hope of jobs, contracts or welfare benefits tapped from the state. This time, millions of southerners voted instead for political novices committed to fighting graft. But in a time of austerity, the purveyors of Rome’s largesse have little to offer. “I think some people in the south do want a land free of corruption,” says Enrico Ponzone of Avisa Partners, a consultancy. “But I also think many worry about the capacity of the traditional intermediaries to supply state support and that the true appeal of the M5S was its promise of an unaffordable ‘citizenship income’”, a safety-net benefit for the jobless and poorest.

The humbling of the reformers

The centre-left Democratic Party (PD), the dominant partner in Paolo Gentiloni’s incumbent coalition, took the worst drubbing. Its share of the vote, which had reached 41% at the 2014 European elections, collapsed to 19%. The PD’s leader, Matteo Renzi, announced his resignation, but postponed his departure till after the formation of a new government, a position he was soon forced to reverse.

Outside Italy, the election was inevitably seen as a rejection of the EU and its single currency. Discontent certainly exists, and for at least three reasons. There is a widespread feeling that Italy has been left by its EU partners to deal with immigration on its own. The economy has stagnated since Italy entered the euro, so that Italians’ GDP per head today is lower in real terms than it was in 2000. And their politicians have heaped all the blame for slow growth on the EU’s austerity policies rather than the lack of structural reforms to boost productivity. But while the M5S and the League propose ignoring the euro zone’s 3% budget deficit cap to try to bolster growth, their leaders have both said they believe now is not the time to withdraw from the single currency.

Whether either will govern Italy will depend on the outcome of the negotiations that will now take place. The effect of the vote is ironic. The new parliament, like the old one, will comprise three big blocs, none with a majority. Hitherto, it has been the M5S that sat between right and left and, by refusing to deal with the mainstream parties, forced them to co-operate to ensure the country could be governed. Now it is the devastated PD that occupies the middle ground and can offer the support needed for control of parliament. It would not necessarily join a coalition, but could provide external support for a minority government. So it is the PD—not, as widely expected before the vote, Mr Berlusconi—that is the post-electoral kingmaker, though exercising that power could split the already disunited party.

Mr Renzi’s initial response was to rule out deals with “extremists” or “anti-systemic forces”, which would seem to scotch a pact with either strand of Italian populism. But some in his party would contemplate a deal with the M5S, a movement that espouses pacifism and environmentalism, and contains many former civil-society activists. Refusing to co-operate with either side might force Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, to try to build a grand coalition or call new elections. But it would also increase the chances, albeit slim, of a pact between the M5S and the League.

Mr Salvini has ruled out “weird coalitions”. Mr Di Maio, however, said he was open to discussion with all sides (in the past M5S has ruled out deals). Of all the possible two-party coalitions, a partnership of the populists would not only have the most solid parliamentary majority but also, according to a comparison in Il Sole-24 Ore, a financial daily, the highest level of overlap between the policies of its component parties. A deal with the League, however, could well tear apart the M5S and enrage its southern voters, who recall that not so long ago Mr Salvini’s party exuded contempt for the mezzogiorno. Rebuilding Italian politics after the earthquake of March 4th will be long and hard.