The center-left coalition headed by Pier Luigi Bersani appears to have won a narrow victory in elections for Italy's lower house of parliament, according to final figures released by the Interior Ministry.
Bersani's coalition won 29.54% of the vote cast for the lower house, less than half a percentage point more than the center-right coalition headed by controversial three-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, which garnered 29.18% of the vote.
Final results for the Senate showed the center-left winning with 31.63% of the vote, compared with the center-right's 30.72%.
"It's by no means done, but it is exceptional. This is the first time ever that Italy has had a hung parliament," said James Walston, a professor at The American University of Rome, before the final results.
"The center-left was not able to put forward a clear picture; they lack leadership. And Berlusconi, who was trailing way behind before Christmas, ended up putting together, reconstituting, a new center-right coalition," he said.
Voter turnout was lower than anticipated on Sunday, the first day of balloting, down from 62.55% in 2008 to 55.17% this year, the state-run ANSA news agency reported.
Weather, in part, appeared to cause the lower voter turnout, the news agency said. It was snowing in portions of northern Italy and raining in the southern part of the country.
The candidates and their alliances
Sampling polls were banned within two weeks of the elections, but the most recent ones had Bersani holding on to a slender lead over Berlusconi. Former comedian Beppe Grillo was a distant third.
All the candidates, with the exception of Grillo, cast their ballots Sunday, ANSA reported.
Italy's political system encourages the forming of alliances.
For example, the Democratic Party has teamed with the more left-wing Left Ecology Freedom party. The center-left alliance is dominated by the Democratic Party, led by Bersani.
Bersani, 61, comes across as "bluff and homespun, and that's part of his appeal -- or not, depending on your point of view," said Walston, the analyst.
He described Bersani, a former communist, as a "revised apparatchik," saying the reform-minded socialist was paradoxically "far more of a free marketeer than even people on the right."
At second place in the polls was the center-right alliance led by Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party, or PdL, in coalition with the right-wing, anti-immigration Northern League.
Berlusconi has given conflicting signals as to whether he is running for the premiership, indicating that he would seek the job if his coalition won, but contradicting that on other occasions.
The septuagenarian playboy billionaire nicknamed "Il Cavaliere" has been campaigning as a Milan court weighs his appeal against a tax fraud conviction, for which he was sentenced to four years in jail last year. The verdict will be delivered after the elections; however, under the Italian legal system, he is entitled to a further appeal in a higher court.
Because the case dates to July 2006, the statute of limitations will expire this year, meaning there is a good chance none of the defendants will serve any prison time.
Why are elections taking place now?
Italian parliamentarians are elected for five-year terms, with the current one due to end in April.
But in December, the PdL withdrew its support of the reformist government led by Mario Monti, saying it was pursuing policies that "were too German-centric."
Monti subsequently resigned, and the parliament was dissolved.