A man casts his vote for the Italian Senate, in Piacenza, Italy, Sunday.
ROME — Italy's crucial elections appeared to be heading toward gridlock today, initial results showed, with the center-left forces of Pier Luigi Bersani moving toward victory in the lower house of Parliament and the camp of former premier Silvio Berlusconi gaining the upper hand in the equally powerful Senate.
The upstart protest campaign of comic-turned-political agitator Beppe Grillo was also showing a stunningly strong result in both houses of the legislature, confirming its surprise role as a force in Italian politics.
The unfolding murky result bode badly for the Italians’ willingness to endure more tough reforms the country needs to snuff out its economic crisis and tame nervous markets. After rising in the wake of initial exit polls, Milan's main stock index turned southward with the first official projections.
If the results verify that Parliament is split, Italy could be headed to new elections in the coming months.
The Italian election has been one of the most fluid in the last two decades thanks to the emergence of Grillo's 5 Star Movement, which has capitalized on a wave of voter disgust with the ruling political class and harsh austerity measures imposed by incumbent technocrat Premier Mario Monti.
The decisions Italy's government makes over the next several months promise to have a deep impact on whether Europe can decisively stem its financial crisis. As the eurozone's third-largest economy, its problems can rattle market confidence in the whole bloc and analysts have worried it could fall back into old habits.
Bersani's coalition — which has shown a pragmatic streak in supporting tough economic reforms spearheaded by Monti — was leading in the lower house of Parliament, according to exit polls.
Bersani's coalition has taken 35.5 percent of the vote for the lower house of parliament, ahead of the center-right coalition under Berlusconi with 29 percent, the polls indicated. The poll by Tecne has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
In the Senate, projections by the Piepoli Institute for RAI public TV showed Berlusconi's coalition slightly ahead, with 31 percent to Bersani's 30 percent. Grillo's movement had 24.6 percent and Monti's centrist forces 9.4 percent. Sky's Senate projections showed Berlusconi with a full three-point lead over Bersani, and Grillo with 25 percent.
Under Italy's complex electoral law, the distribution of the upper chamber's seats depends largely on how the candidates do in Italy's regions, since the more populous regions, like Lombardy, get a greater share of the seats.
Whether the center-left takes Lombardy might well decide if the coalition could stitch together a coalition with a workable majority in the Senate, as well as in the lower Chamber of Deputies, where the regional factor doesn't exist.