ROME (Reuters) - Italy's new parliament met on Friday for the first time since last month's inconclusive election with no sign of a deal to end the stalemate and yield a government able to address the deep problems in the euro zone's 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 the 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 and Bersani has ruled out any deal with ex-premier Berlusconi, whose center-right bloc is the second-biggest force in parliament.
"We are ready for anything," Roberta Lombardi, the 5-Star Movement's parliamentary leader in the lower house, told reporters when asked if she was prepared to go back to the ballot box.
The task of the 630 lower house deputies and 315 senators sitting on Friday was to elect the speakers, who hold two of the highest offices of state and play a central role in managing the parliamentary agenda.
They are elected in a complicated process involving repeated rounds of voting that will amount to the first concrete test of the parties' ability to work together after the bitter election campaign.
The center-left's majority means it can control the result in the lower house but paradoxically, appointing a speaker from the 5-Star Movement would be a stronger signal that Bersani can organize the numbers to be able to govern.
No result is expected until at least three rounds of voting are completed, with the main blocs likely to cast empty ballots in initial rounds in a tactical battle to sound out each other's intentions. The process may not be completed until Saturday.
Michela Biancafiore, a deputy from Berlusconi's People of Freedom party considered close to the former premier, said she expected Bersani's Democratic Party would fail to reach a deal with Grillo and end up voting for one of its own members.
"That will mean that the PD will remain without a majority in the Senate and we'll be voting again in June," she told reporters on the sidelines of the sitting.
The election of the speakers 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 over a government.
Business leaders, bankers, foreign heads of government and international officials have all voiced hope that Italy can form a government capable of reforms needed to lift its stagnant economy.
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.
Underlining the instability, 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.
If none of the parties can conclude an agreement, Napolitano could ask an outsider to try to form a technocrat government, such as the one led by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti although there is no guarantee the parties would agree.
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.
As well as his health problems, Berlusconi faces two trials this month that have occupied much of his attention and contributed to the bitter political climate. He is charged with paying for sex with former nightclub dancer Karima El Mahroug when she was still a minor and in a separate trial is appealing against a four-year sentence for tax fraud.
While the election failed to produce a clear result, it did spawn 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 Italian 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.
(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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