Barring major upsets, Romano Prodi will be Italys next prime minister; but the road to Palazzo Chigi will not be simple and it certainly will not be rapid. At best, he might be given a mandate by president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi before the end of the month, though this seems highly unlikely. If this were to happen, there could be a new government by mid-May. At worst, Italy might have to wait until mid-June or later before having a functioning executive.

Prodis centre-left LUnione coalition won a tiny majority of votes in the chamber of deputies about 0.1 per cent but the new electoral law introduced by prime minister Silvio Berlusconi last November means the winning coalition is given a premium. In the event LUnione took 348 seats against the centre-rights 281 and one independent. The result in the senate is much less decisive; there too there is a winners premium but it is distributed on a regional basis. The result was 158 seats to the centre-left against 156 to the centre-right and one independent, although most of the seven life senators can be expected to vote for the centre-left making the majority slightly more reliable.

Not only is the electoral system brand new but President Ciampis mandate ends in the middle of May and he is loathe to take any controversial decisions on his way out. In theory he could have invited Prodi to begin to form a government as soon as the results were declared but as Berlusconi refused to concede defeat until all the contested ballot papers were recounted, he played safe. Prodi too said that the new government should wait until there was a new head of state.

The new parliament will convene on 28 April; the two chambers will elect their speakers and then form their parliamentary groups. Early in May they will meet together with representatives of the regions and begin the process of electing a new president, who should take office on 18 May.

There will be local elections across the country, including Rome, on 28 May. Only after that will the politicians be able to get down to the serious and formal business of putting together a government. The manoeuvrings, of course, have already started.

Looking back, the extraordinary point about these elections is that Berlusconi almost managed to stay in power. At least since the centre-lefts landslide victory in last years regional elections, most people in Italy thought that he had no chance; the polls consistently put the centre-right four or five points behind the centre-left; the economy was stagnant and his coalition was in disarray, with ministers resigning even during the election campaign. Instead, he came to within a few thousand votes of winning. This was largely because he managed to mobilise enough of his undecided sympathisers to actually go out and vote. Although the Casa delle Libert lost by a whisker, Berlusconi was extremely successful in maintaining his control over the coalition with his Forza Italia party taking half of the total.

At 83.6 per cent, turnout was two per cent higher than in 2001. Mobilising undecided voters was a tactic used successfully by George W. Bush in the 2004 United States presidential campaign. Berlusconis last-minute promise to abolish the municipal property tax, ICI, for first-time buyers also had its effect, and the verbal fireworks of the last week where he insulted the opposition, attacked the judiciary and even got into international trouble by saying that Chinese communists used to boil babies all succeeded in bringing out the centre-right vote.

After the elections, he was much more conciliatory, even suggesting that there could be some sort of Grand Coalition on the German model. His concern about a divided Italy, which is undoubtedly true, has a certain irony to it as it was largely his tactics which increased that divide.

Prodi and his supporters have ruled out any powersharing and the possibility of having Berlusconi as president of the republic, but there will no doubt be some discussion over how the two parliamentary speakers should be elected. There is the possibility that sooner or later some of the centrists in the centre-right might move over, either on specific issues or by actually changing parties, though even if this happens Prodi will have a difficult job governing.

He says that he has every intention of governing for the full five years, an unlikely sounding declaration given the fractious nature of his coalition. In addition to the LUlivo group, there are two communist parties, one with 41 seats in the chamber of deputies and the other with 16; there are former radicals and socialists (in the Rosa nel Pugno party) with 18 seats, the Green party (Verdi) with 15 and Antonio Di Pietros party, Italia dei Valori, with 16. These small parties represent an ill-concealed protest vote over a wide spectrum of ideas. However, the small majority might actually hold the coalition together and paradoxically make it stronger. Prodi has learnt how to manage coalition politics after his mistakes as prime minister in 1998; he was elected leader by a huge and unexpected primary vote last year; he has a programme signed by all the partners and finally, he has the fear of a Berlusconi return to keep his alliance together.

It is not impossible that the steady, plodding, uncharismatic Prodi might really last the full five years; but first he must actually take his seat in parliament and be given a mandate. Election night was a roller coaster; the next couple of months will not be quite so spectacular but they will be no less interesting.