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A Fine Italian Mess

By Marc Champion
February 25, 2013 2:59 PM EST

So far just two things about Italy's elections look clear -- that Italians rejected policies of structural reform and austerity, and that financial markets care.

Italian bond and stock markets suffered whiplash as exit-poll estimates trickled out today. Italian bond yields fell sharply when it first appeared that Pier Luigi Bersani and his center-left coalition had secured majorities in both houses, implying a solid government. Then those gains and more were lost as new exit-poll data suggested Silvio Berlusconi's center-right coalition had won the Senate. Investors fled to U.S. Treasuries.

Given the complex mathematics involved in calculating the number of seats each party gets in the Senate, it isn't yet certain what the precise outcome will be. But a version of what markets feared appears to have come to pass: Italians have rejected the policies embodied by Caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti and may have chosen political gridlock.

Monti appears to have won less than 10 percent of the vote. Bersluconi, who campaigned against Germany and austerity, won the most seats in the Senate, but not enough to control it. The anti-austerity, anti-euro former comedian Beppe Grillo appears to have won even more votes than expected, and may now head the second largest party in Italy, but has said he won't join any coalition government. Bersani won the lower house, but in Italy you need to control both houses to govern.

Once the final seat allocation in the Senate is known, new elections may well be needed and a period of damaging uncertainty is all but certain. We saw a similar movie in Greece last year. It wasn't fun to watch.

(Marc Champion is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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