THE election was bound to be messy. But on March 4th Italian voters came up with a result that has surpassed the worst predictions, and cast a pall over not only Italy but the rest of the European Union, too.

Both chambers of parliament are hung, with no easy or quick way for anyone to achieve a majority (see article). More alarming is that half of the voters—fed up with high unemployment, stagnant wages, uncontrolled immigration and a self-serving political class—voted for the two main populist parties, the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Northern League. Both are hostile to the EU and especially the euro, and both campaigned on lavish tax and spending promises that Italy cannot afford. Mathematically, no government can be formed without one of them. The previously governing Democratic Party (PD) lost well over half its seats, eliminating the option of a centrist coalition. The PD’s drubbing was in part a rebuke to the vainglory of its leader, Matteo Renzi, who was trying again to become prime minister, despite losing a referendum on constitutional change in 2016. But the vote is also a rejection of the PD’s attempt at economic reform, which Italy needs but apparently cannot stomach.

The PD may yet play the role of kingmaker. But the available kings are disturbing. M5S backs an unaffordable universal basic income and wants to scrap pension reforms. Its nebulous aims include transforming Italy into a direct digital democracy. It is led by a 31-year-old with no administrative experience and owes an unclear degree of allegiance to its founder, Beppe Grillo, a part-time comedian who began his political career with the cry of vaffanculo! (fuck off!) to the establishment.

The other king is no more appealing. The right-wing alliance that won 37% of the vote is dominated by Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League, whose party overtook Forza Italia, led by Silvio Berlusconi, a former prime minister whom we once called “unfit to lead Italy”. Mr Salvini has shifted the League, which once advocated secession by the rich north, into a hard-right party allied with Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France. He has called the euro a “crime against humanity” and has threatened the mass deportation of migrants who are stuck in Italian limbo because no one else in Europe will let them in. He also favours a budget-destroying 15% flat tax.

For the PD, the choice is between hemlock and cyanide. But refusing to give even limited support to either risks an even more gruesome possibility: an alliance between the League and M5S. Right now that seems unlikely. The League’s traditional hostility to the poorer south, where M5S is strongest, makes such a pact hard. But unless the PD does a deal with someone, it may yet happen. Faced with deadlock, President Sergio Mattarella could seek to appoint a short-lived technocratic government. Or Italians may be asked to vote again. Neither option will solve much. Scheming to keep the populists out will only strengthen them; better to expose their empty promises by giving them some responsibility for governing. Whatever the outcome, Italy’s public finances will probably weaken, while structural problems that have dragged down productivity and growth will remain untreated.

Far beyond Italy’s shores

This dismal result will be felt across Europe, where the rise of populists and the weakening of mainstream parties has become a theme. In Germany last weekend the centrists clung on to power, after members of the Social Democratic Party approved a new “grand coalition” with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Their coalition agreement includes measures to strengthen euro-zone governance, potentially providing more cash for infrastructure, a permanent fiscal backstop for its resolution mechanism for troubled European banks, and money to assist with structural reform.

This programme was always a hard sell to frugal north Europeans. In the light of Italy’s vote for irresponsibility, it has become a much harder one. How many Germans want to shoulder more liabilities so that Italians can retire earlier?

The euro zone’s third-largest economy has low growth and public-sector debt of about 130% of GDP. It is also too big to bail out. Italy poses a systemic risk to the euro unless it can reform itself. And on the evidence of last weekend, it can’t.