ROME: The caretaker leader of Italy's ruling Democratic Party (PD) said on Monday the party should go into opposition after its bruising election defeat and resist calls to participate in the next government as a junior partner.
A March 4 election ended in stalemate, with an alliance of conservative parties falling 49 seats short of a majority in the lower house of parliament. The largest single party, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, was 95 seats adrift.
Either group could govern if they won the backing of the centre-left bloc, dominated by the PD, which took 112 seats in the 630-seat lower house. The PD could also provide both camps with a majority in the upper house Senate.
Maurizio Martina, who has taken over as acting PD chief following the resignation of former leader Matteo Renzi, told a party meeting that 5-Star and the far-right League should try to form a government even though they were pre-election adversaries.
"The people voted for you to govern, now do it," Martina said in reference to 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, head of the League which was the leading party in the rightwing coalition.
"Dear Di Maio and Salvini, take on your responsibility," he told the party, meeting to lick its wounds after its worst-ever election performance and try to chart a path forwards.
Martina's words were in line with Renzi's parting shots, but it remains to be seen whether the PD will continue to resist calls from within its ranks and from left-wing commentators for it to support a potential 5-Star government.
Earlier on Monday Salvini rejected the idea of governing with the PD, hours after his main ally, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, called for its support.
"The Italians did not vote for us to bring Renzi back to government. Do you think a League voter wants (current Prime Minister Paolo) Gentiloni in power?" Salvini told reporters after a party meeting in Milan.
His statements contrasted with an appeal Berlusconi made to the PD in Monday's Stampa newspaper, asking for its help to form a government and avoid a swift return to the polls.
The former premier, who cannot run for office due to a 2013 tax fraud conviction, said the election result meant he and his rightwing allies had "the right, and above all the duty, to lead the next government", and he called on the PD to show a sense of responsibility.
"Nobody ... can ignore the country's need to be governed," he said, adding it would be much better to take "a few weeks" to put together a coalition rather than rush to a new election.
Forza Italia's relegation to second place within the alliance was the first such defeat for Berlusconi in all his 25 years in politics, and weakened the position he had carved out as a moderate guarantor who could keep his allies in check.
Berlusconi ruled out that the League, now the second-biggest party in parliament, could break ranks with its conservative allies and join forces with 5-Star.
"I trust Salvini's loyalty and his political intelligence. I cannot see how a party in our coalition could imagine cooperating with a 5-Star government," he said.
Italian media speculation is growing that the only way out of the parliamentary deadlock might be a "national unity" government backed by all the main parties.
The new parliament sits for the first time on March 23. One of its first duties will be to elect presidents for the two chambers, which will give a first glimpse of party dynamics within the legislature.
Salvini indicated at the weekend that the League should lead one house and 5-Star the other. However, looking to forge ties with the centre left, Forza Italia suggested the conservatives should back a PD candidate in one of the chambers.
(Writing by Gavin Jones, Isla Binnie and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Andrew Roche)