ROME  - Italy’s new parliament met on Friday for the first time since a deadlocked election that left no clear winner and saw the astonishing rise of a protest party that wants a referendum on the euro. The centre-left won a majority in the lower house of parliament last month but failed to snag the Senate, leaving the eurozone’s third largest economy facing possible fresh elections within months. Efforts by centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani to close a deal with rival parties have so far been unsuccessful, as analysts warn further delays could worsen Italy’s delicate financial state.

European leaders have urged Italy to speed up a slow-moving political timetable and form a government as soon as possible as the country endures its longest recession in two decades.

Outgoing prime minister Mario Monti was the biggest loser in the elections, with voters punishing him for a programme of austerity measures aimed at getting public finances in order.

Monti on Thursday wrote a plea urging European Union partners to grant Italy and other countries facing pressure on their finances the leeway to spend for jobs - or face voter backlash.

“Public support for the reforms, and worse, for the European Union, is dramatically declining,” he said, adding that the trend was “also visible in many countries across the Union”. Monti asked that Italy be given greater flexibility on its debt and deficit requirements “to implement an urgent plan to support the creation of stable and better jobs.”

Bersani has been making overtures to the Internet-based Five Star Movement (M5S), led by former comedian Beppe Grillo, which finished third in the election, behind former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) party.

But the anti-establishment Grillo has flatly refused to strike a deal with “those who have destroyed Italy”, and Bersani has ruled out an alliance with the centre-right and scandal-ridden Berlusconi.

Should no accord be found, the country will likely be forced back to the polls within months.

Emilio Colombo, a senator for life appointed as a temporary head of the upper chamber, warned on Friday against dragging out the stalemate.

Failure to seal a deal “would lead to institutional paralysis with dramatic consequences for the management of the big economic and social problems”, he said.

Friday’s session is expected to be an opportunity for debate before a vote to elect speakers for the upper and lower houses, who play a key role in the parliamentary agenda.

The election of the speakers of parliament would enable President Giorgio Napolitano officially to begin consultations next week with the leaders of political parties on forming a new government.

Bersani is hoping for a formal mandate from Napolitano to try and form a government but analysts say his chances are extremely low.

The Five Star Movement has made it clear it would not give Bersani a vote of confidence in parliament, thereby blocking a minority government.

Napolitano could offer the job of prime minister to someone else or install a technocratic government charged with reforming a maddeningly complex electoral law before holding a fresh vote.

The president, who holds a role that is usually mostly ceremonial, has a key position in the current context in negotiating a new government.

If all else fails, parliament would have to be dissolved for new elections to be called - but it cannot be Napolitano to do so.

The constitution forbids presidents from doing this in the last six months of their mandate - which in Napolitano’s case runs out on May 15.

Should it come to it, parliament would have to elect a new president, who would then dissolve it and call new elections.