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Time was running out for Italy's leftist leader Pier Luigi Bersani on Thursday as he wound up days of bitter talks with rival parties aimed at mustering the necessary support to form a government.
The former Communist, asked by Italy's president last week to try to forge a block strong enough to govern the eurozone's third largest economy, will report to members of his Democratic Party (PD) after intense political consultations.
He is then expected to meet President Giorgio Napolitano later Thursday or Friday to present his plan for a government and request an official mandate.
The new government would then be put to a confidence test in parliament.
Bersani has hoped to persuade individual members of other parties to give their support to the centre-left, proposing a limited programme of urgently-needed reforms in exchange for their backing at a confidence vote.
On Thursday, it looked as if he may be forced to consider a controversial deal to work with the centre-right -- a move he has furiously ruled out so far.
Frustration over his apparent inability to make headway and rising concern over the effect a political deadlock may have on debt-laden Italy both appeared to be taking their toll on Bersani as he rushed to explore last minute deals.
Business leaders and trade unions have sounded the alarm over the parlous state of the economy in Italy, suffering its longest recession for 20 years.
Young people have been hit hard, with jobless rates at almost 39 percent in January, while the economy is forecast to shrink by 1.3 percent this year.
"Only a mentally ill person could have an itching desire to govern right now," Bersani said on Wednesday during talks with the anti-politics 5-Star movement, which he has repeatedly tried -- and failed -- to woo.
The son of a car mechanic said he was "ready to assume a huge amount of responsibility" and pleaded with the populist movement to play its part.
But the 5-Star refused once and for all to back Bersani and ruled out his chances of luring away key votes from within the movement.
While Bersani has said working with former premier Silvio Berlusconi and the right risks embittering centre-left voters, there are those within his party who think allying with the enemy would be better than returning to the ballots.
Scandal-hit Berlusconi's People of Freedom party (PDL) has courted Bersani, offering him the chance to form a coalition government in exchange for a say in the appointment in several key roles, to ensure its influence in parliament.
Berlusconi's right-hand man and party secretary Angelo Alfano said Wednesday that "Bersani now finds himself in the blind alley he has closed himself in. It is up to him now to turn the situation around, if he wants to and is able."
Whoever comes to power is unlikely to last more than a few months or a year at most before the country goes back to the polls, analysts say.
"Bersani is left with only one possible ally: Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing," the HSBC said in a note, adding that "markets would welcome the news" of a left-right coalition "with relief, as stability would be ensured."
Italian borrowing rates were up on five-year bonds and demand declined at a bond auction on Wednesday, while the difference between the German and Italian sovereign 10-year bond yields inched up as well indicating investor concern.
Should Bersani fail to strike a deal, Napolitano may hand over the reins to a technocrat government similar to the one headed up by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, who was brought in to rescue Italy from the debt crisis in 2011.
Monti summed up the desire for a quick conclusion to the political stalemate on Wednesday, saying his government -- which stayed on in a caretaker capacity after February's inconclusive election, "cannot wait to be relieved of duty".