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Italy entered uncharted waters Saturday as centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani scrambled to find a parliamentary majority even though his coalition failed to get enough votes in elections that have left the country in deadlock.
The leftist was given the go-ahead by President Giorgio Napolitano on Friday to try and win over lawmakers from rival parties after his coalition won a majority in the lower house but not in the upper house in last month's vote -- a first in Italy's post-war history.
Bersani began his consultations after getting the nod from Napolitano, who asked him to report back "as quickly as possible" and warned that Italy was in a "social and economic crisis" as it endures its longest recession in two decades.
Bersani's office on Saturday outlined his schedule for the days ahead, including meetings with local authorities on Saturday, the employers' federation Confindustria on Sunday and trade unions on Monday before formal talks with parliamentary leaders next week.
Bersani could finish these talks on Tuesday or Wednesday and return to Napolitano on Wednesday or Thursday to report on whether he has enough support for a government, Italian media reported.
Analysts say he could seek to form a "minority government" reliant on the support of votes from other parties in parliament but warn that this would be a highly unstable arrangement.
Another option could be a technocratic government similar to the outgoing one of Prime Minister Mario Monti.
In any case, most analysts say that Italy will be forced to hold fresh elections to resolve the conundrum -- within a few months at the earliest or up to two years at the latest.
European capitals and financial markets are watching nervously and have pressed for the eurozone's third largest economy to move quickly, particularly after a bailout dispute in Cyprus reignited fears over the euro area debt crisis.
A former school teacher who joined the then-powerful Italian Communist Party as a young man, the 61-year-old Bersani is the son of a car mechanic and is known for his down-to-earth style.
He served in previous centre-left governments and spearheaded an economic liberalisation drive aimed at reviving Italy's anaemic economic growth when he was minister for economic development.
Bersani may try to woo lawmakers from the Five Star Movement, a new protest party that scored a stunning success in the February 24-25 polls, winning a quarter of the vote and coming in third after Bersani and Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right.
Napolitano all but excluded the possibility of a "grand coalition" between Bersani and his arch-rival Berlusconi, saying the obstacles to an agreement "appear significant" even though both politicians had signalled a deal might be possible.
The centre-left currently holds 123 senate seats.
It hopes to be able to count on the support of Monti's centrist party, which holds 18 seats -- but would still need another 17 to reach the senate majority of 158.
Any government would require a majority in both houses of parliament under the Italian system.
The 76-year-old Berlusconi, a scandal-tainted three-time prime minister embroiled in several court cases, lost to Bersani by a razor-thin margin and will likely be a powerful force in Italian politics whatever government is formed.
Italy managed to pull back from the debt crisis under Monti, who was brought in at the end of 2011 after Berlusconi was ousted by a parliamentary revolt amid European pressure and a wave of market panic.
But while Monti's austerity reforms and tax hikes reassured European leaders, the economy has failed to pick up and many Italians are suffering.
Markets were relatively upbeat after Bersani won the nomination, however, with the Milan stock market closing 0.69 percent higher on Friday.
The differential between Italian and German 10-year sovereign bond yields also narrowed to 313 basis points on Friday from 322 on Thursday, indicating greater investor confidence.
During his campaign, Bersani promised to stick to the broad course of reforms and budget discipline pursued by Monti but said he would do more to promote jobs, growth and "social equity".
If he does become prime minister, he would face the huge challenge of balancing pressure at home to ease austerity and European insistence for Italy to stick to its economic targets.
Bersani has also responded to the groundswell of protest votes that went to the Five Star Movement, saying he intends to halve the number of lawmakers in parliament and do away with unpopular perks.