Rome - Italy's March 4 general elections produced two clear winners - the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the far-right League - but no clear parliamentary majority, leaving the country in political limbo.
A government could be formed if the two winners join forces, or if one of them reaches out to the elections' big loser, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD). But no-one wants to make the first move, in a political game of chicken likely to continue for weeks.
We look at how the situation could unfold.
A centre-right government
The League is part of a rightist coalition, featuring ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, the post-fascist Brothers of Italy, and the centrist We are with Italy, which declared victory after garnering about 37 per cent of votes. With final results not in yet, the La Stampa newspaper has estimated that the right-wing alliance is 53 seats short of a majority in the 630-seat lower Chamber of Deputies and 23 short in the 315-seat Senate.
Renato Brunetta, a senior Forza Italia figure, has urged the PD to provide the missing votes, possibly in return for the presidency of one of the two houses of parliament, due to be chosen from March 23 onwards. Such a move would be difficult for the PD, because the bulk of the party is convinced that its interests would be best served by staying in opposition, refusing unpalatable compromises with right-wing opponents.
An M5S government
The M5S is claiming a mandate to govern because it has emerged as the single most popular party, with about 32-33 per cent, but it needs an extra 93 deputies and 49 senators to gain control of the two houses of parliament. A minority faction of the PD has spoken in favour of supporting a M5S-led government, mainly to block the far-right's League ascent to power. But the PD and the M5S have long presented themselves to voters as polar opposites, and have little in common policy-wise.
The League could be a better fit as ally, as it shares the M5S' eurosceptic outlook, and calls to undo EU-backed labour and pension reforms. But the League's radical flat tax plans and the M5S' promise to give income support to millions in poverty are hard to reconcile. Making a deal with the M5S would also force the League's ambitious leader Matteo Salvini to play second-fiddle in a M5S-led government, and break with longtime ally Berlusconi, who has denounced Five Star as a "dangerous sect."
A government of the president?
If President Sergio Mattarella, the arbiter of the political crisis, sees no room for no workable coalitions, he could broker a deal on a national unity government with a short-term mandate, mainly to pave the way for repeat elections as soon as possible. Such a government – which ideally should be supported by rightwingers, the M5S and the PD – would be expected to focus on drafting a new election law to minimize the risk of yet more deadlock after the next general elections.
More of the status quo?
Mattarella could ask outgoing Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of the PD to stay on in a caretaker position if none of the previous options prove workable. But with voters rejecting the status quo so decisively, such a solution would have little democratic legitimacy.