Italy’s two populist parties are readying to seize power after attempts to form a coalition government collapsed, raising the prospect of snap elections as early as July.
Luigi Di Maio, leader of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, and Matteo Salvini, who heads the far-right League, are both demanding early elections after a third round of negotiations failed to end the deadlock that has been in place since an inconclusive election in March.
President Sergio Mattarella called on Monday for the creation of a “neutral” caretaker government to rule through 2018, but both populist leaders rejected that proposal, saying they preferred to go back to the polls.
Without their support, Mr Mattarella is unlikely to get his proposal through parliament, said Luigi Ferrata, public affairs account director at Community Group, which is an Italian strategic communications consultancy.
"The League and 5-Star don't want to support a neutral government, which means snap elections are very likely – either in July or in September," Mr Ferrata told The National.
If fresh elections take place in the coming months, Mr Ferrata says they could produce a more decisive result than in March, with either of the two populist rivals seizing control.
“I think we could see a polarisation of the electorate between Salvini and Di Maio, because the other candidates are weaker this time around. The Democratic Party and [Forza Italia leader Silvio] Berlusconi both seem to be losing ground and votes now,” he said.
“That means we would see a run-off between the League and the 5-Star Movement, which could result in a clearer winner and an end to the political deadlock.”
The political limbo comes after a March 4 general election which saw a right-wing alliance led by the League win the most votes but the 5-Star become the largest single party. The centre-left Democratic Party finished a distant third.
The populist rivals are betting that they can break the political impasse by going back to the voters rather than cutting a deal with other parties.
A clearly frustrated Mr Mattarella has tried for weeks to break the stalemate but various proposals for alliances failed, primarily after Mr Salvini refused to abandon his partnership with Mr Berlusconi to enter into a coalition with the 5-Star.
On Monday, Mr Mattarella called on warring political leaders to support a “neutral government”, declaring that there was no longer any hope for a workable political alliance and that Italy can't wait any longer for leadership.
"The parties have repeatedly asked for more time to try to find an agreement," he said in a televised public statement after a day of final, last-ditch consultations. "In the meantime lacking an agreement, I hope they will agree via a confidence vote to give birth to a neutral government. A government of service."
He said that his as yet unnamed government would last until the end of December, after which it would be dissolved and new elections could be held.
The president added that elections over the summer would be impractical because so many Italians would be on vacation, and risky in autumn because it could jeopardise approval of the annual budget in parliament.
However, Mr Di Maio dismissed Mr Mattarella’s proposal and declared that his movement is gearing up for fresh elections.
"[We have] No faith in a "neutral" government, which is synonymous with a government of technocrats. We are going to vote in July," he wrote on Twitter.
Mr Salvini also rejected the idea of a non-partisan prime minister and called for elections on July 8 if, as seems likely, there’s no last-ditch agreement between party leaders.
"It's crucial that the vote of the people is respected. So it's either a centre-right government or elections as soon as possible," Mr Salvini said after the president spoke.
Although The League and 5-Star have failed to agree on forming a coalition between themselves after the March elections, they have enough votes together in parliament to block any other government from taking office.
The only major political force to support Mr Mattarella's idea was the centre-left Democratic Party, whose acting leader Maurizio Martina echoed "the president's call for responsibility".