Every early report on Italian election results comes with the caveat that the exit polls are notoriously unreliable. But that remark too should be caveated: in previous elections (most obviously 2006 and 2013), a small error mattered a great deal, because the contest for a plurality was very close and the coalition that led was granted a large bonus allocation of seats, guaranteeing it a majority in the lower house.

Neither applies this time; the winner’s bonus has been abolished, and the identity of the leading coalition is not in doubt anyway. The centre-right has the largest share of the vote and will have the largest share of seats.

Nonetheless, this is a bad result for the centre-right. A fortnight ago, it was polling around 38%, not that far off the estimated 40% or so that would be needed to win a lower house majority. Instead it has slipped to something like 34-35%, and is projected to win only about 245 seats in the 630-seat Chamber of Deputies.

Moreover, within the centre-right coalition, the relatively moderate component, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, has lost ground and appears to have been outvoted by the neo-fascists of the (Northern) League.

Behind the centre-right coalition, but way ahead of any other single party, is the populist Five Star Movement, with something in the neighborhood of 31% and a likely 200-230 seats.

It looks complicated, but the choice is now quite simple. Since the League and the centre-left (who will have about 130-140 seats) will obviously not work together, no government can be formed without the support of the Five Stars. It therefore comes down to who they will choose to work with: the far right, or the centre-left.

Either option will yield a large majority, in votes and seats, and in both houses. Last time, the Five Stars could sit back and play a spoiling role, but the changes to the electoral law and their own rising support have removed that possibility.

Now they have to decide whether to side with civilisation or with barbarism. The choice is theirs.

(Updates to come this afternoon when things become clearer. You can follow things in the meantime with live blogs at Politico and the Guardian, or watch the numbers at La Repubblica.)

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UPDATE 7.30am, Italian time (5.30pm in Melbourne)

Counting is continuing, with no real change in the situation. You can follow the Interior Ministry’s figures here (“camera” is lower house, “senato” is Senate).

With 67.8% of polling places in, the centre-right coalition has 37.0% of the lower house vote (up 7.8%), the Five Star Movement 31.6% (up 6.1%) and the centre-left coalition 23.7% (down 6.0%). The only other group that will win seats is the leftish Free & Equal, polling below expectations with 3.5%.

Those numbers will still bounce around a little (the Senate is very similar, but slightly better for the right), but not enough to affect the fundamentals. What I said above still stands; the Five Star Movement will have to choose which side it’s on.

It is most unlikely to work with Matteo Renzi, so the priority for the centre-left, in my humble opinion, should be to despatch him quickly and offer to support Luigi Di Maio as prime minister of a reformist, pro-European government. But whether they’ll buy that or not, no-one knows.

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