ROME President Sergio Mattarella is consulting a total of 23 parties to help him find a successor to outgoing Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, showing how little progress Italy has made in reducing political fragmentation.
On Friday, Mattarella met separately with groups that few Italians have even heard of, such as the Thought and Action Party, the Civic Innovators Party and one known only as "Fare!", which would roughly translate as the "Doing" party.
The political landscape is even more fragmented than it looks. Several of the delegations holding talks with the president are actually mini-coalitions and the total number of movements in parliament is around 40.
The first group to emerge from the meetings in Mattarella's sumptuous Rome palace on Friday recounted their encounter in German. They represented the Austrian minority in the South-Tyrol border region.
One of the bigger players, the Northern League, which polls show is Italy's third most popular party at about 13 percent, said it favoured a snap election rather than creating a new government with anything other than a short-term caretaker role.
"We must vote as soon as possible," Giancarlo Giorgetti, the League's deputy secretary, said after his meeting with Mattarella.
The president's consultations will continue on Saturday, including with Renzi's Democratic Party (PD), which has more parliamentarians than any other bloc.
The fragmentation of politics into countless parties and factions is one of the reasons Italy has had 63 governments in the last 70 years.
Until the early 1990s an electoral system of proportional representation (PR) was widely blamed for allowing small parties to prosper, yet since pure PR was scrapped in 1993 the fragmentation has only got worse.
To preserve their existence at elections, tiny parties merge into broad coalitions, but then often splinter again and change names and allegiance once the new parliament has been formed.
At the same time, individual parliamentarians move freely between parties from one election to the next, often changing the make-up of the majority backing the government.
In the first 18 months of the current parliament, 116 of the 315 senators elected in 2013 changed their political colours.
The cause of Italy's latest political crisis was Renzi's decision to resign after failing to get popular support for constitutional reforms aimed at increasing government stability. Critics said one weakness was that his proposal did nothing to prevent party-swapping.
Renzi's own centre-left government was propped up in parliament by centre-right splinter groups that abandoned Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party after the last election, including the New Centre-Right (NCD) led by Angelino Alfano.
Alfano and the NCD will meet Mattarella on Saturday, as will Berlusconi's Forza Italia and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.
(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer, editing by Robin Pomeroy)