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Parliamentary elections in Italy appear headed to deadlock

| Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, 7:39 p.m.

ROME — The prospect of political paralysis hung over Italy on Monday as near complete official results in crucial elections showed an upstart protest campaign led by a comedian making stunning inroads and mainstream forces of center-left and center-right wrestling for control of Parliament's two houses.

The story of the election in the eurozone's third-largest economy was shaping up to be the astonishing vote haul of comic-turned-political leader Beppe Grillo, whose Five Star Movement has capitalized on a wave of voter disgust with the ruling political class.

Another surprise has been the return as a political force of billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who was forced from the premiership at the end of 2011, and whose forces now have a strong chance of coming out on top in the Italian Senate. His main rival, the center-left Pier Luigi Bersani, appeared headed toward victory in Parliament's lower house.

The unfolding murky result raised the possibility of new elections in upcoming months and bodes badly for the nation's efforts to pass the tough reforms it needs to snuff out its economic crisis and reassure jittery markets. In New York, the Dow Jones index plunged 200 points on fears of Italian election gridlock.

While Italy's postwar history has largely been one of revolving-door governments, it has never had a hung parliament. Experts said that's likely to change.

“This has never happened before,” said James Walston, a political science professor at American University of Rome. He predicted such a swirl of political chaos that new elections might need to be called as soon as this spring, when the new legislature chooses a president who can be tapped to dissolve Parliament.

The Italian election has been one of the most fluid in the past two decades as a result of the emergence of Grillo's Five Star Movement, which developed against a backdrop of harsh austerity measures imposed by technocrat Premier Mario Monti, who has fared miserably in the elections.

Many eligible voters didn't cast ballots, and a low turnout is generally seen as penalizing established parties. The turnout, at less than 75 percent, was the lowest in national elections since the republic was formed after World War II.

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