ROME — Will they or won’t they? The once-competing populist and anti-establishment parties that won the most votes in Italy’s elections two months ago joined forces in recent days, seemingly close to ending a deadlock. On Monday, they met separately with the Italian president, and expectations were high that the country might have a new government.
Then, things quickly returned to normal: the party leaders emerged from their meetings to say that they had asked the president for more time to iron out significant disagreements.
While a deal had seemed imminent, the exasperated faces of the leaders of the Five Star Movement, an unpredictable, web-native party, and the League, a hard-right, anti-immigrant party, suggested that time might not heal all wounds.
“The last thing we want to do is waste the time of the president or the Italians,” said Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, during angry but resolute remarks to reporters after meeting with President Sergio Mattarella. “I hope to see you again as soon as possible, either to form a government, or to say goodbye.”
Luigi Di Maio, the 31-year-old political leader of Five Star, stood at the same microphone after meeting with Mr. Mattarella a couple of hours earlier. He was less assertive and seemed to struggle to put on a brave face.
“We intend to form a government as soon as possible,” said Mr. Di Maio, who is subject to the rules of his party that limit terms in office and is surrounded by inexperienced politicians unused to compromise.
After much speculation in the press about potential selections for prime minister, Mr. Di Maio added that he and Mr. Salvini had agreed not to publicly name their proposals for prime minister or other cabinet members.
That seemed about all they agreed on.
It was not what Italy expected after anticipation built over the weekend for the announcement of a deal and an agreement on a prime minister to lead a government that would make Italy by far the largest and most consequential country in the European Union to fall to populist forces.
Such an outcome would place the country in the hands of antagonists of the bloc, who have raised concerns about membership in both NATO and the eurozone.
“We are writing history,” Mr. Di Maio said over the weekend, when things seemed on track and the two parties engaged in intense, and sometimes secret, meetings.
Mr. Mattarella, frustrated by more than two months of a stalemate after inconclusive elections, spurred them to action when he threatened last week to impose a technocratic caretaker government.
It now looks possible that Mr. Di Maio’s draft of history might get scrapped.
Both sides are still haggling over a common agenda that they hope will dominate Italian politics for the next five years. But there is plenty they don’t see eye to eye on, including, Mr. Salvini suggested, justice reform, Italian adherence to European budget rules, investment in infrastructure and, perhaps most importantly, immigration.
“On immigration the League and Five Star’s positions start from notable distances,” Mr. Salvini said. “I refuse to think of yet another summer and fall of the business of migrant landings, of more illegal immigration. If there is a government, the League must have a free hand to protect Italian citizens’ security and to dismantle a business made on the backs of migrants.”
Polls have shown that Mr. Salvini has benefited from his performance, by turns professional and provocative, through the negotiations following inconclusive elections on March 4.
And he has never broken ranks with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who a few days ago unlocked the possibility of a deal by agreeing to step back for the time being. In a not-so-veiled threat to the Five Star Movement, Mr. Salvini said on Monday that he remained in contact and on good terms with his coalition partners, some of whom seemed eager to return to vote in the hopes of winning an outright majority.
“We are making an enormous effort because if I was only thinking in terms of political, party and personal convenience, we would have left a long time ago,” Mr. Salvini said at the Monday news conference at the president’s Quirinal Palace.
While the parties have been trying to hammer out a deal, even releasing videos, albeit silent ones, of their negotiations, Mr. Mattarella, who is imbued with great power by the Italian Constitution to appoint a stable government, has been speaking a lot lately about the importance of European unity and traditional alliances.
The soft-spoken but respected statesman issued a not-so-gentle reminder in a speech on Saturday that the president had the authority to strike down laws that he believed to be unconstitutional or which could dangerously balloon the country’s deficit.
He also said that it was his job to appoint a prime minister and cabinet, and he made it clear that he would not automatically approve whatever plan Mr. Di Maio and Mr. Salvini came up with.
“I’m not a notary,” he said over the weekend. If he does not accept the suggestion for a prime minister, Italy is likely to hold a new election. But Mr. Mattarrella is also loath to disregard the will of Italy’s voters.
There is plenty that Five Star and the League do agree on, most importantly their antagonism toward Brussels, their opposition to sanctions against President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia and their general agreement that migration needs to be countered and that Italians need to be put first. They have both tapped into deep pools of Italian anger.
Those Italians are now waiting to see if the two leaders, who both say they have no fear of new elections, will grind out an agreement or return to the campaign trail, where they are more comfortable.
As Mr. Di Maio put it Monday, “The next days will be fundamental.”
Elisabetta Povoledo and Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Rome.