IT’S all about him again. At 81, Silvio Berlusconi has a criminal record (for tax fraud) and is on trial yet again (for allegedly bribing witnesses). His party, Forza Italia, fared disastrously in a general election on March 4th. It won just 14% of the vote and Mr Berlusconi forfeited the leadership of the right to Matteo Salvini of the Northern League.

Yet as Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella was set to launch a second round of talks on April 12th aimed at giving Italy a government, Mr Berlusconi was again central to his country’s fortunes, though not in the way he had hoped.

It had been widely expected that Mr Berlusconi would emerge as the post-election kingmaker: able to bless or block an alliance between his own centre-right party and the governing centre-left Democratic Party (PD). But the PD also did badly, scotching any prospect of a coalition with Forza Italia: the two together control barely a third of the seats in parliament.

Most attention instead now focuses on the young leader of the maverick Five Star Movement (M5S), Luigi Di Maio. With more than a third of the new lawmakers, the M5S can make or break a government in Italy’s hung parliament. And with a heterogeneous mix of policies and followers, the movement can lean right or left as circumstances demand.

Arithmetically, the most convincing partnership would be between M5S and the populist League. Together, they would have clear majorities in both chambers. Their leaders got on well in talks leading to the election of the two Speakers. But there are snags. The first is that Mr Di Maio wants not to be kingmaker but king, though that may be tactical bluster. The other, more serious obstacle is Mr Berlusconi himself, whose party Mr Salvini wants to include in any future government, whereas the M5S wants to keep it out.

Many Five Star activists abhor the much-indicted former prime minister and all who surround him. Mr Di Maio refuses even to speak to Mr Berlusconi. But another reason is that, whereas M5S would be the senior partner in a coalition with the Northern League, it would be the junior one in a collaboration with the entire right-wing alliance, which also includes two much smaller groups. So far, Mr Salvini has remained loyal to the alliance. But that in part is because the right needs to be united for regional elections later this month. What happens afterwards is another matter, and will also depend on Mr Di Maio’s efforts to woo the PD instead.

But there too there are snags. The M5S has viciously criticised the PD. On April 7th Mr Di Maio said the time had come to bury the hatchet. But such words will not assuage many PD loyalists. The other problem is Matteo Renzi, the PD’s former but still highly influential leader, who has so far persuaded the party to go into opposition and rebuild. Cracks are nevertheless starting to appear in the PD’s apparent unity; two bigwigs have urged dialogue.

So the solution to the conundrum of Italy’s next government comes down to which side—right or left—splits first. If neither does, it will be up to President Mattarella to mould an all-party coalition to pass an electoral law that could produce a clear result, and steer Italy back to the polls.