Speaking after a third round of unsuccessful consultations since Italy's general election in March, Mattarella made clear that his hopes of reaching a deal on a coalition government any time soon were over.
"The parties need to choose, we can't wait any longer," he told the press on Monday evening, setting out two alternatives:
A "neutral" government appointed by the head of state, which would run the country either until parties agree on a majority or the end of the year, whichever came first. If there were no deal by December, the president would call new elections in early 2019.
- Another election as early as July.
Both the Five Star Movement (M5S), Italy's single biggest party, and the League, which leads a right-wing alliance that together got the largest share of the ballot in March's election, are set on the second option.
"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," said League leader Matteo Salvini after Mattarella spoke.
Luigi Di Maio, head of M5S, said on Twitter: "No confidence in a 'neutral' government, which is synonymous with technical government. We should go to the polls in July."
Both leaders are calling for a new vote as soon as July 8th, which would be unprecedented in Italy. As Mattarella pointed out, the country has always avoided voting in summer when many people are away, and Italy does not allow its domestic voters to cast their ballots by post.
It would also leave Italy just two months to prepare for an election. Mattarella could decide to put a vote off until the autumn, though that risks holding up crucial government decisions.
- Understanding Italy's Five Star Movement
- The 'who, what and why' of the League
- An introduction to Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party
Luigi Di Maio speaks to the press after Monday's meetings. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
Instead, the president outlined an administration that would help Italy maintain its international obligations, including June's European Council meeting, and approve the country's 2019 budget.
The only major political force to support Mattarella's idea was acting leader of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), whose acting leader Maurizio Martina echoed "the president's call for responsibility."
Italy has been waiting since the March 4th general election for a new government.
The League's alliance topped the March 4th polls with 37 percent of the vote, while the anti-establishment M5S became Italy's largest single party with almost 33 percent. Neither group has the numbers to form a majority government and both have been tussling for power.
Di Maio offered to forgo the prime minister's office in order to make a deal with the League, but insisted that his party would not work with Salvini's coalition partner, former PM Silvio Berlusconi, who the M5S has vehemently opposed ever since it was founded.
Matteo Salvini with his coalition partners at the presidential palace. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
Salvini refused to drop Berlusconi or his Forza Italia party, and proposed instead that the president allow him and his partners on the right to form a minority government, an idea that Mattarella excluded.
The president also tried to see if a pact could be made between the M5S and the PD, who despite flopping to third place had enough seats to form a majority with Di Maio's party.
But that possibility was ruled out on Thursday, when the PD's national leadership voted unanimously not to engage in government talks with the M5S. Former prime minister Matteo Renzi, who continues to wields huge influence within the party, vehemently opposed working with the M5S, which was fiercely critical of the PD when it governed Italy.
Di Maio blamed the political establishment for refusing to work his party, telling Italian radio on Tuesday that "we didn't want to end up here".