By Karl Ritter, Associated PressROME -- Italian lawmakers on Saturday elected center-left leaders for both chambers of Parliament, paving the way for difficult talks to form a new government to get started. Normally a routine procedure for a new Parliament, filling the positions required four rounds of voting in both the lower house and the Senate, highlighting Italy's political gridlock following February elections that gave no party a clear victory. Laura Boldrini, a former spokeswoman in Italy for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, was chosen to lead the lower house, while antimafia prosecutor Piero Grasso was elected Senate leader. "The country more than ever needs fast and effective answers to the social, economic and political crisis that it is going through," Grasso said. Boldrini won 327 votes to secure a majority in the 630-seat lower house. In the Senate, Grasso beat center-right candidate Renato Schifani in a runoff with 137 votes to Schifani's 117. No candidate won enough votes in the initial rounds Friday as Parliament convened for the first time since the Feb. 24-25 election. The majority rules were relaxed in the subsequent voting rounds on Saturday. On Monday, each party and coalition will have to select caucus leaders, the final step before President Giorgio Napolitano can open talks on forming a government, expected next week. Investors are watching the sessions closely for signs of what to expect from the eurozone's third largest economy, whose debt hit a new high, topping 2 trillion euros ($2.6 trillion) in January, according to the Bank of Italy. Center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani's party finished first in the election and has a stable majority in the lower house, but not in the Senate. Bersani has ruled out an alliance with former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's center-right forces, which finished second. But Bersani has failed to persuade the antiestablishment 5-Star Movement, which captured a quarter of the votes, from cooperating on a leadership strategy. The 5-Star Movement, led by comic-turned-political leader Beppe Grillo, refuses to align with any major party. The political stalemate has raised the possibility of new elections in the coming months and bodes badly for Italy's efforts to pass the tough reforms it needs to snuff out its economic crisis.
Berlusconi was met with jeers from protesters as he arrived to take part in the Senate vote, a day after leaving a Milan hospital following a week's treatment for an eye inflammation. Before entering the Senate building, he turned to the protesters and said, "Shame on you." Berlusconi has been seeking to have two trials -- a tax fraud appeal and a sex-for-hire hearing -- postponed due to the eye condition. The courts responded by dispatching court-appointed doctors to verify its severity.