ROME The Italian parliament convened on Friday for the first time since last month's deadlocked election with no sign of a deal to end the stalemate and yield a new government able to tackle reforms in Europe's troubled third largest economy.
The parties have so far failed to find a way out of the impasse created by the election, which left the center-left with a majority in the lower house but without the numbers to control the Senate and form a government.
Without that, an early return to the polls is the likely alternative, bringing more uncertainty and the threat of a renewed bout of financial market turmoil that helped topple Silvio Berlusconi's government in 2011.
Attempts by center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani to reach an accord with Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement have been rebuffed. Bersani has ruled out any deal with ex-premier Berlusconi, whose center-right bloc is the second-biggest force in parliament.
On Thursday, center-left officials acknowledged that the offers to cooperate had been rejected. But they repeated that the center-left was prepared to reach a deal on filling the influential posts of speakers of the Lower House and Senate.
The first task of the 630 lower house deputies and 315 senators sitting on Friday will be to elect the speakers, who hold two of the highest offices of state and play a central role in managing the parliamentary agenda.
The speakers are elected in a complicated process involving repeated rounds of voting that will provide the first concrete test of the parties' ability to work together after the bitter election campaign.
No result is expected until at least three rounds of voting are completed, with the main blocs likely to cast empty ballots in the initial rounds as part of the tactical battle to sound out each other's intentions.
If the 5-Star Movement, which holds the balance of power, reaches a deal on the parliamentary speakers with the center-left Democratic Party (PD) it may pave the way to a broader agreement on the formation of a government.
However, the fiery Grillo has promised not to support any government not led by his own movement in a confidence vote. He has repeatedly rejected any backroom deal with the parties he blames for dragging Italy into crisis.
Beyond appointing the speakers, the opening of parliament will prepare the way for President Giorgio Napolitano to begin formal consultations with party leaders next week to see if there is any prospect of an agreement.
Business leaders, bankers, foreign heads of government and international officials have all expressed hope that Italy can find a solution to the impasse and form a government capable of the kind of reforms needed to lift its stagnant economy.
Underlining the instability, however, an opinion poll on Friday showed the 5-Star Movement had maintained its support in the three weeks since the election, suggesting that any return to the polls could well produce a similar result.
Berlusconi, confined to hospital for the past week with an eye complaint, was not in parliament but the other party leaders were present apart from Grillo, who did not stand for election and who leads his movement from outside parliament.
While the election failed to produce a clear result, it did produce what has been hailed as a positive change of direction in terms of the relative youth of the parliamentarians elected and a big increase in women.
It will be by far the youngest parliament in Italy's history, thanks largely to 5-Star's 163 deputies and senators, none of whom have any previous parliamentary experience.
Overall, the lawmakers' average age of 48 is lower than that of their counterparts in Germany, France, Spain, Britain and the United States. Moreover, the proportion of women has jumped to around 31 percent from 20 percent previously.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)