The newly-elected lower house Chamber of Deputies and upper house Senate began the process of electing their new speakers, with a row over who takes Senate speaker role highlighting the deep divisions between the forces vying for control.
Friday's vote is important because until both are chosen consultations between President Sergio Mattarella and those vying to form a new government cannot begin. The process could last till Easter and beyond.
The right-wing coalition led by nationalist Matteo Salvini's League party, which gained the most votes with 37 percent, is fielding Paolo Romani, the economy minister in Silvio Berlusconi's last government and a member of the media mogul's Forza Italia party, for the post of Senate speaker.
Forza Italia is the second largest party in the coalition, with 14 percent of the vote compared to the League's 17 percent. The right and anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5s) are working on a deal that would let the right have the Senate speaker and see the M5S take the Chamber, a prelude to potential power-sharing talks between the two.
However the M5S, Italy's largest single party with 33 percent, announced on Thursday that it "cannot vote for" Romani due to his 2014 conviction for embezzlement for which he was given a suspended 16-month sentence that was confirmed on appeal in October.
The M5S is opposed to any candidates with previous convictions or under investigation by the authorities. Romani was found guilty of giving an official mobile phone to his 15-year-old daughter, who then spent over 12,000 euros in phone bills between January 2011 and February 2012.
Italian lawyer and Democratic Party (PD) member Lucia Annibali casts her vote. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
On Friday morning M5S leader Luigi Di Maio wrote on the official M5S blog that the party would return blank ballots for both the Chamber and Senate votes. The centre-left Democratic Party (PD), whose coalition came third, is refusing to form an alliance with either of the other two groups. It will also return blank ballots in both houses.
In total 592 blank ballots were returned in the Chamber's first vote. The M5S's rejection of Romani has infuriated Silvio Berlusconi, who demanded a meeting with Di Maio.
Late on Thursday, the M5S's incoming chief whips in the Chamber and Senate, Giulia Grillo and Danilo Toninelli, published a joint post saying they would only deal with Salvini and not Berlusconi who "wasn't legitimized by the people."
M5S leader Luigi Di Maio gestures in the Chamber of Deputies on Friday. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
The current negotiations are a warm up for government talks, with the M5S and right saying they are ready to work with anyone who would be willing to adopt their programme. The selection of the 321-seat Senate speaker is relatively straightforward, with the winning candidate being chosen after a maximum of four rounds of voting over the weekend.
If no-one achieves an absolute majority by the third round, the two most popular candidates of the third ballot will face a run-off. The vote for the Chamber speaker is more complicated with no limit to the number of ballots that can be held before a candidate is elected and no one group close to a majority.
If the aspiring speaker fails to earn a two-thirds majority vote from 630 MPs, the quorum will progressively lower until the fourth round, when a simple majority of voting MPs is needed.
Matteo Salvini (L) and Luigi Di Maio. Photos: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
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By Terry Daley