By Elvira Pollina and Gavin Jones
MILAN (Reuters) - The leader of Italy's far-right League said on Tuesday he was the only possible candidate for prime minister for the center-right after his party emerged as the strongest in the conservative bloc at Sunday's election.
The vote produced a hung parliament and talks to form a government will take weeks and possibly months. The League and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement both say the president should name their own leaders as prime minister.
The League's chief Matteo Salvini replied "no" when asked by reporters in Milan if he would be willing to make way for a candidate who may be able to garner more support in parliament.
The anti-immigrant League won around 17 percent of the vote at the election, upsetting expectations by coming in ahead of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party, on 14 percent. The center-right coalition, which includes other smaller parties, took around 37 percent.
That made it the biggest group in parliament, but left it short of an absolute majority, meaning it will need the backing of other parties to govern.
Berlusconi, in his first comments since the election, congratulated Salvini in a video message on Tuesday, but made no reference to him being the center-right's candidate as prime minister. Berlusconi said he would remain as the "coordinator" of the coalition and the "guarantor" of its unity.
The biggest loser at the election was the ruling center-left Democratic Party (PD), whose leader Matteo Renzi said on Monday he would resign once a new government has been formed.
Renzi added that the PD would go into opposition and not participate in any government with the League or 5-Star, but he has since been criticized by several senior PD figures for trying to dictate the future course of the party.
Claudio Borghi, the League's economics chief, said he thought the most probable government would be a tie-up between 5-Star and the PD, but he hoped the center-right and 5-Star could govern together instead.
"What I would prefer for my country would be the center-right and 5-Star because I think we could find common ground," he told Reuters in an interview.
Despite the setback for the center-left, the high-profile, unaffiliated industry minister Carlo Calenda announced on Tuesday he was joining the PD. He is expected to quickly carve out an influential position in the party.
5-Star, which has already presented its would-be cabinet team, was by far the largest single party, winning 32 percent of the vote, and its leader Luigi Di Maio is looking for potential partners in parliament for a government led by 5-Star.
The center-right fell some 50 seats short of a majority, and Salvini said the coalition would appeal to individual parliamentarians elected with other parties to make up the gap by switching sides to join the conservatives' ranks.
The parties are already feeling each other out over the scope for alliances, but formal consultations with President Sergio Mattarella will not begin until after March 23 when parliament convenes to elect the presidents of the two chambers.
In his comments to Reuters, Borghi also ruled out the possibility that the League would break ranks with Berlusconi to join a government with 5-Star. Berlusconi himself is barred from becoming prime minister again due to a conviction for tax fraud.
Forza Italia's result "would have been very different if they hadn't blocked me from running properly as a candidate," the 81-year-old media tycoon said in his video message.
The 5-Star's Di Maio, 31, who was elected leader in September, has shifted the party towards the mainstream, rowing back on previously euroskeptic positions to reassure investors and Italy's partners about its intentions.
Vincenzo Boccia, head of the country's main employers' lobby Confindustria, said he saw no reason to fear the prospect of a 5-Star government.
"They are a democratic party, we will look at the measures they propose," he told reporters in Milan, adding that it was important that whoever formed a government did not dismantle previous reforms or undermine public finances.
(Additional reporting by Isla Binnie and Claudia Cristoferi; Writing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Gareth Jones)