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Italy tumbles into 'chaotic uncertainty'

By Barbie Latza Nadeau, Special to CNN
February 26, 2013 -- Updated 1100 GMT (1900 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Italy headed for a new phase of chaotic uncertainty, writes Barbie Nadeau
  • Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of center-left, squandered weeks of leading in polls
  • Electoral outcome is cloudy, and even chaotic, and will most likely lead to another election

Editor's note: Barbie Latza Nadeau is Rome bureau chief for Newsweek Daily Beast and is a frequent contributor to CNN. She has lived in and reported from Italy for Newsweek since 1997.

(CNN) -- The only thing certain about the results of the Italian elections held February 24 and 25 is that the country is headed for a new phase of utter and chaotic uncertainty.

While there may be clear winners in terms of ballot counts, there is no clear majority in the powerful senate, which means that no one has a clear enough mandate to actually govern the country. In short, Italy is right back where it was in November 2011 when Silvio Berlusconi resigned amid a flurry of sex and financial corruption scandals. But is that back to square one? That would be an optimistic outcome. In many ways, things are far worse.

Italy has actually used up many of its final chances in this electoral season. Not only has the country chosen not to embrace continuing austerity under technocratic leader Mario Monti, which is necessary by any calculation to actually start moving Italy out of the recession.

Barbie Latza Nadeau is Rome bureau chief for Newsweek Daily Beast.
Barbie Latza Nadeau is Rome bureau chief for Newsweek Daily Beast.

It has also opted to give a great deal of parliamentary power to the anti-establishment Five Star protest movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo who, aside from not actually being a candidate, vows to bring a referendum on Italy's continuing involvement in the eurozone currency among other things. He now stands to have the largest party in the lower house. None of his candidates have any parliamentary experience, which is likely why he won so much support.

"We'll see you in parliament," Grillo tweeted as the final results clearly proved that he had indeed tapped into the country's discontent.

But perhaps the most astonishing feat of these elections is that Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the center-left Partito Democratico, somehow squandered weeks of a well-established lead in the polls. And, to none other than comeback king Silvio Berlusconi, who managed to beat all the odds and climb from a dismal 16 percent in the polls in December to nearly knocking out his center-left rival all together.

Since his resignation in November 2011, he has been convicted of tax fraud (he is appealing) and he is awaiting a verdict in a sleazy trial in which he is accused of paying an underage alleged exotic dancer for sex on no less than 13 occasions. Berlusconi has denied the allegations.

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His winning campaign promise was as anti-austerity as it comes. He vowed not only to abolish the property tax on primary residences that his successor Mario Monti reinstated when he took the helm. He also promised to reimburse Italians for the property taxes they paid last year. The money, he says, will come from taxes on secret Swiss bank accounts held by wealthy Italians.

The electoral outcome is cloudy at best, and nothing short of chaos at worst, and will most likely lead to another round of elections. There are few scenarios in which either Bersani or Berlusconi could form alliances with Grillo or Monti to form a strong majority to actually lead the country. Monti did not fare well enough to give Bersani the boost he needs, and he has vowed not to do business with Berlusconi.

And Grillo has promised his populist following that he won't join forces with any established political parties, meaning he has no goal other than to be a strong opposition. And who can blame him? He has much more power in his now very strong kingmaker position.

Italy is headed for serious instability at a time when the country is already on its knees. Unemployment is forecast to reach 12 percent next year, according to the European Commission. And the economy is expected to shrink by at least 1 percent in 2013. Political instability is never good for investors, and Italian voters have just ensured an uncertain future by failing to reach a decisive vote.

But things could have been different.

Bersani could have possibly led his party to a far stronger showing if he had allowed Matteo Renzi, the 38-year-old mayor of Florence and center-left darling to run in his place. Instead, the two dueled it out in an ill-advised primary race late last year in which Renzi - and the center-left -- ultimately lost after Bersani sold the party faithful on experience over optimism.

Berlusconi actually admitted he would have never put his name on the ballot if Renzi was running.

And Berlusconi, whose center-right party has strong support among the wealthy entrepreneurs of Italy's productive regions, also passed up an opportunity to make a better showing for the center-right.

By refusing to give up power and pass on his party reigns to Angelino Alfano, his sometimes protégé, he lost the opportunity to attract a younger, stronger center-right vote.

Instead, the duel between Berlusconi and Bersani ended up a somewhat embarrassing battle of silly promises and, ultimately, broken dreams for Italians who will find that however difficult they thought things were, they are bound to get worse.

Now Italy is in a limbo they haven't seen in decades. Having just endured 15 months of technocratic tough love with austerity measures, they have now seemingly squandered the chance for democracy. What comes next is anyone's guess, but it won't be pretty.

"This is a case of gridlock," James Walston of the American University of Rome told CNN. "Nothing could be worse for Europe."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Barbie Latza Nadeau.

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