Matteo Salvini gestures at a news conference following Italy's parliamentary elections, in Milan, Italy, March 5 2018. Picture: REUTERS
Matteo Salvini gestures at a news conference following Italy's parliamentary elections, in Milan, Italy, March 5 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Rome — Two anti-establishment leaders made plays to govern Italy on Monday, sending ripples across the eurozone after voters put mainstream parties on the sidelines with a hung parliament.

With the bloc’s third-largest economy seemingly facing prolonged political instability, the anti-immigrant League claimed the right to rule after its centre-right alliance won most votes.

"We have the right and duty to govern," its leader, Matteo Salvini, told a news conference, saying investors should have no fear of it taking office even as shares, bonds and the euro weakened on prospects of a eurosceptic-led administration.

Minutes later, the head of the biggest single party, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, said it was ready to take on a leadership role. "We’re open to talk to all the political forces," 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio said. "We feel the responsibility to give Italy a government [as] ... a political force that represents the entire nation."

With the vote count well advanced and full results due later on Monday, it looked almost certain that none of the three main factions would be able to govern alone.

In Brussels, a European Commission spokesman said it was confident a stable administration could be formed "and in the meantime Italy has a government with whom we are working closely".

Salvini criticised the euro and EU restrictions on national budgets.

"The euro was, is and remains a mistake," he said, but said a referendum over Italy’s continued participation in the euro was "unthinkable".

The rightist alliance that includes former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Itali was on course for about 37% of the vote — but for the first time the League emerged as the senior partner. The role reversal marks a bitter personal defeat for the billionaire media magnate and his party, which took more moderate positions on the euro and immigration while the far-right League campaigned on a fiercely antimigrant ticket.

Salvini said that while not interested in a broad "minestrone" coalition, the League would be willing to talk to all.

Earlier on Monday its economics chief, Claudio Borghi, raised the prospect of an alliance with Five Star — which was heading for about 32% of the vote — which would probably be little interested in further European integration.

Anti-establishment parties have been on the rise across Europe since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

In Italy, where the economy is 6% smaller than a decade ago and unemployment is stuck near 11%, Sunday’s biggest loser was the party that has ruled since 2013.

Despite overseeing a modest recovery, the Democratic Party’s centre-left coalition trailed on 22%, also a victim of widespread anger over an influx of more than 600,000 migrants over the past four years.  

Matteo Renzi, the head of Italy’s Democratic Party, resigned on Monday following the humiliating defeat. Renzi, 43, also said he believed the party should not make any post-election pacts with “extremist parties” and would be in opposition to the next government.

New elections to try to break the deadlock are a plausible scenario.