Tense wait for Italian leftists in neck-and-neck election

Leftist supporters in Italy settled in for a tense wait at a bustling campaign headquarters in Rome on Monday as early results and projections showed a neck-and-neck race with Silvio Berlusconi's coalition.

There were few smiles after exit polls showing a victory in both chambers of parliament were quickly overtaken by early results showing impending gridlock projected onto a giant screen.

Nervous-looking officials from the centre-left Democratic Party scurried around the giant glass-domed hall and were hard to pin down.

"If there is one majority in the Chamber and another in the Senate, there is no government," Stefano Fassina, a top party official for economic and social affairs, said as reporters huddled round.

Fassina said the centre-left may have to seek an alliance with outgoing premier Mario Monti and his centrist coalition, but added he was not sure this would yield a majority to govern.

One party official, Marco Pacciotti, speaking in the former 19th-century aquarium and concert venue near the central Termini railway station, admitted the result may not be conclusive and fresh elections may have to be held.

"The other option is going back to the polls very soon, with the risk of blocking Italy again for three months... It's dangerous," he said.

Alessandra Moretti, a candidate, said the results "give the impression of a country torn apart".

"The country is divided, undecided," said Moretti, who pointed to the huge inroads made by the anti-austerity Five Star Movement (M5S).

The movement "has succeeded where traditional politics has failed," she said.

Moretti hinted at possible collaboration with M5S -- "a relationship that could give us an agreement on concrete laws."

"The situation is very uncertain," she said.

Pacciotti said the protest movement, led by former comedian Beppe Grillo, had collected "the fruit of general discontent in north and south".

"We will have to face them. We are not talking about an alliance but possible convergence on different themes on a case-by-case basis," he said.

Pacciotti said the worst-case scenario would be a loose majority formed for every individual law.

But Fassina cut short speculation on possible outcomes, saying: "We still don't have results.

"These are only projections. We need to wait for definitive results and then we will evaluate the situation," he said.

The mood was even more sombre at Monti's campaign headquarters in central Rome where journalists pressed the scattering of candidates present for answers on why his coalition was doing so badly.

"We are worried about the situation in general and the possibility that the government will not have a majority," admitted candidate Mario Giro.

Giro proposed Monti as a possible central figure in negotiating what may require a delicate political balance.

"If the current results are confirmed, we'll have two big coalitions that will have to work together. Monti would be a pivot between the two. He'll be central," he said.

"Maybe we were not good enough at bringing our message to the people," he added, as glum party staff watched the latest polls on the news or sat with their heads in their hands.

Another candidate, Mario Marazziti, blamed Italy's poisonous political rivals for ruining their chances.

"The parties tried to take the air of novelty away from Monti and suck him into the bitter election campaign, and that damaged us," he said.