The results of Italy’s general election this week (February 24-25) have caused much worry, both nationally and beyond. The inconclusive ballot results have already impacted the country’s markets, undoing much of the progress experienced under ousted Prime Minister Mario Monti. The outgoing PM’s austerity programme had managed to somewhat soothe the struggling Italian economy in recent times – but clearly not the hearts of hard-hit citizens.

The international press has been swift to worry over the delicate nature of the political situation, highlighting its potential impacts on Italy’s already precarious economic health. Yet the result is not entirely surprising, emblematic of a shift in Italian politics which has long been on the horizon.

At the back end of last year, it seemed unlikely that anyone other than Pier Luigi Bersani and his center-left coalition would triumph in the election. Even in the final days before the polls opened, when late surges of popularity for former Prime Minister (PM) Silvio Berlusconi and comedian-cum-politician Beppe Grillo had somewhat threatened the result, many believed that Bersani could still edge his way towards victory.

On Monday evening, though, by which time the vast majority of votes had been counted, the emerging results showed that Berlusconi and Grillo had far exceeded expectations (see graphic). In doing so, they significantly lessened the possibility that a workable government will be formed in the coming days.

Breakdown of Italian election results

The warning signs of such an outcome had been there for all to see. On Friday, February 22, Beppe Grillo’s nationwide campaign with his Five Star Movement (M5S) descended on Rome, where he addressed a crowd reportedly numbering close to one million. Irrespective of whether Grillo and his colleagues will prove politically astute enough to capitalize on this newfound popularity, their anti-establishment rhetoric has surely made a lasting impact on the Italian political landscape.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi also made waves in his return to the mainstream political fold: the vote count of his center-right coalition was only marginally (around one per cent) lower than frontrunner Mr. Bersani. The former PM seems likely to play an important role, not only in the coming days, but continually into what is now a decidedly uncertain future, with no party managing to gain an absolute majority. These late emerging populist candidates have shattered any hopes harboured for stability following these recent elections, throwing Italy and Europe into an unpredictable future, with potentially damaging impacts for the nation, continent and the global economy as a whole.

The breakdown of the results

Unsurprisingly, Berlusconi and Grillo have grabbed the headlines for the sheer volume of unexpected support their parties won. But the weak performance of Mr. Bersani and the center-left should not be overlooked. The virtually neck-and-neck nature of the Bersani-Berlusconi contest would have been unthinkable only weeks ago, when the Democratic Party candidate had a healthy lead in the polls.

Alberto Nardelli, blogger and occasional writer for the Guardian, wrote in the immediate aftermath of proceedings that, “the [pre-election] polls missed one underlying trend – and it had a huge impact on the result: the collapse of the center-left.”

So, too, is the low turnout of support for Mario Monti particularly telling. Even an agreement between Bersani and Monti – a coalition that was considered in the lead-up to the election – would not produce the number of seats necessary to form a stable government. It adds to the difficulty of the situation that the current PM – the poorest performer of the four main candidates – is the one who will continue in the prime ministerial post until a resolution is brokered.

In theory, the two most available options now would appear to be either the center-left allying itself with Berlusconi’s center-right, in what would be an unprecedented “Grand Coalition;” or, alternatively, a center-left agreement with the Five Star Movement, a body often labelled as an “anti-politics party.” Though these coalitions remain possible, neither outcome is considered likely.

In the first place, a left-right government would appear to be unsustainable, given the historical adversarial relationship between the two wings. Yet such an untenable partnership may need to be forged as electoral reforms are made and as a new election is scheduled.

Even more unlikely is a center-left arrangement with the Five Star Movement, considering Mr. Grillo’s campaign pledge not to get into bed in government with other main parties. Niccolò Locatelli, an Italian columnist, suggested that such a move would be “suicidal” for Grillo. This unwillingness for political compromise is arguably the root cause of the country’s current political gridlock, with potentially drastic implications for economic recovery efforts in the eurozone.

A double-edged sword

Amidst the damage, there has understandably been little in the way of optimism, with one Italian daily newspaper on Tuesday running with the pertinently elegiac headline, “The winner is: Ingovernability.” Indeed, along with ordinary Italians who must now wait patiently for a resolution, the real loser in this election appears to be the electoral system itself, which seemed increasingly likely in recent weeks to produce an awkward and unworkable outcome.

Again, Beppe Grillo and his party are the central players underlying these results. Numerically, of course, they competed with the established powers of Italian politics. Their performance has highlighted the Italian political situation’s dire need for drastic changes. As was stated in an article for Quartz News, “Grillo’s protest party has done exactly what it set out to do when it was founded in 2009: disrupt Italian politics.”

The undeniable strength of Grillo’s campaign emerged from its ability to rouse a significant section of the electorate from indifference. Grillo picked up many voters who might otherwise have abstained from doing so at all.

As this publication pointed out last week, Italians appreciate how Grillo and his party’s political experiences have all been gleaned from the outside looking in – highlighting just how desperate voters are for a change from the current guard.

As Quartz News also aptly remarked, highlighting the all too comedic nature of Grillo and his successes: “it’s no wonder Italians piled into the clown car.” It appears that, among other things, Grillo has brought about an element of gallows humour. The question remains: will his campaign’s success direct Italian economic recovery and political stability to the gallows as well?

Reaction to the results

Always a reliable barometer of public sentiment, Twitter was quickly inundated after the results emerged with the acerbic views of concerned Italians, who spoke out against Italian politics at large.

Emma Alberici, an expatriate Italian and news presenter on Australian television, summed up the mood of many who had taken to the social network by showing her disbelief at the outcome. She tweeted: “In an election race between a comedian, a lecher, a communist and an economist, it still stuns me that the economist came last.”

Yet while there appeared to be little room for optimism on Monday, outgoing PM Mario Monti also took to Twitter, with a display of blatantly unjustified buoyancy by claiming that he was satisfied with his election performance – which, by all accounts, result in a heavy defeat. Yet Italians of all persuasions may be required in the coming weeks to emulate Monti’s determination to seek out silver linings.

While there is no escaping the fact that the result has brought about a state of outright political instability – ascenario catastrofico, as some publications have called it – many hope that this election’s upheaval will spark a sea of changes in Italian politics. Grillo’s late surge, which brought Italians in the hundreds-of-thousands to the capital’s streets last week, provides unequivocal evidence that it is no small minority committed to real change, however politically disruptive these commitment turn out to be.

Whenever criticism has been levelled at the comedian’s Five Star Movement, it has often arisen on the grounds that, beyond calling for a radical clear out of the Italian political classes and putting an end to cronyism, the party has no sustainable long-term policies. Yet the hope remains that simply by disrupting the stagnancy of Italian politics, Grillo has now set into motion a much needed transformation of the system.

But the comeback of Silvio Berlusconi suggests that the old-guard politicians that Grillo wishes to displace are not ready to go just yet. The famous words of Italian writer Antonio Gramsci seem particularly poignant: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Meanwhile, amidst this comedic and chaotic spectacle, the Italian nation waits expectantly.