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Italy's president is playing for time as populist rivals dig in

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From his study, Sergio Mattarella looks out on a prize collection of cacti in the manicured gardens of the presidential palace in Rome.

[ROME] From his study, Sergio Mattarella looks out on a prize collection of cacti in the manicured gardens of the presidential palace in Rome. After Italians elected a hung parliament with rival populist forces each claiming the right to lead, the head of state faces an equally prickly search for a new government.

Matteo Salvini's anti-migrant League supplanted Silvio Berlusconi as the dominant force on the Italian right, but their coalition is still short of an outright majority. Luigi Di Maio says the Five Star Movement's status as the single biggest party gives him the right to govern. Though he doesn't have the votes either.

The Sicilian Mattarella, 76, a former minister and constitutional judge, won't nominate anyone unless they can show they have the support to win confidence votes in both houses of parliament, a senior state official said, declining to be named discussing future choices.

The president and his team will speak to party leaders over the coming weeks, urging them to put the tensions of the campaign behind them and seek ways to form a majority, the official said.

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Questions for the presidency, he added, include whether Five Star would accept a coalition instead of just external backing, whether Mr Berlusconi would really support Mr Salvini, and if there's any chance the centre-left Democratic Party would join a broad allliance.

"Mattarella has an unpredictable path ahead, he's going to need time," said Massimo Luciani, a professor of constitutional law at Rome's Sapienza University. "He could name the head of the biggest coalition, or of the biggest party. Or he could do neither of those and ask someone, perhaps the new speaker of the Senate or the lower house, to try to find out if there can actually be a majority."

Three-Month Window

Mr Mattarella won't make his pick until April at the earliest. Before then, parliament reconvenes on March 23 to elect the two speakers - a first clue to possible alliances. If the president's formal consultations with party leaders fail to produce a majority by June, Mr Mattarella could dissolve parliament and trigger new elections, the official said.

Despite the absence of a majority, leaders are already clamoring for the nomination. Mr Di Maio, 31, told reporters in Rome that the elections were "a triumph" for Five Star and paved the way for his party to govern. He said he was "open to talks with all parties," pointedly adding that he trusted the president.

Before the vote Mr Di Maio said he would offer other parties "a government contract" in which they provide support for a set agenda and a cabinet that he has already named. But Five Star would likely have to compromise on that stand to find allies.

Mr Salvini had signalled that he'd be open to talks with Five Star if his coalition failed to win a majority. But that was when polls suggested he'd be a sideman to Mr Berlusconi. Now that he has command of the centre-right himself, he has no incentive to compromise, according to Richard Turnill, global chief investment strategist at BlackRock in London.