May 10, 2006

Italian president chosen

By Robin Pomeroy

ROME (Reuters) - Italy elected a new president on
Wednesday, ending a lengthy period of political limbo and
opening the way for Romano Prodi to become prime minister more
than a month after beating Silvio Berlusconi at the polls.

Prodi's candidate, Giorgio Napolitano, an ex-communist,
80-year-old life senator, secured 543 votes from the "grand
electors," parliamentarians and regional representatives, 38
more than the absolute majority needed.

The result was a crucial victory for Prodi who cannot take
office until the new president is in place and gives him a
mandate. It was the latest blow to Berlusconi who took three
weeks to accept he lost the April 9-10 national election by a

After the vote, Prodi told reporters he expected his
government would he sworn in by next Wednesday, after
Napolitano takes over from outgoing President Carlo Azeglio
Ciampi, possibly on Monday.

"Italy needs a government to lift it out of crisis," Prodi
said after the vote, referring to the challenge of reforming a
chronically weak economy with a rapidly aging population. "I
need the help of all Italians and I will have to earn that."

The president-elect is a member of the Democrats of the
Left, the post-Cold War incarnation of what was once western
Europe's biggest communist party. He becomes the first
ex-communist to take the country's highest political seat.

Asked if the election had left him emotional, Napolitano
responded with typical understatement: "What do you think?"


Prodi's coalition pushed his candidate through against the
wishes of the opposition after political stalemate prevented a
conclusive result in three initial rounds of voting on Monday
and Tuesday, during which a two-thirds majority was needed.

Napolitano's victory will have come as a huge relief to
Prodi as it showed he does have the political stature to rally
his troops to defeat Berlusconi who remains a strong force as
head of the single biggest party in parliament.

Berlusconi grudgingly acknowledged Napolitano's election.
"We are still convinced that half of the country has been
excluded," he said. "This is not the will of the people but we
wish him well."

One consolation for the media tycoon was that his
centre-right House of Freedoms coalition remained united and
did not heed Prodi's call to back Napolitano, a candidate
considered even by many on the right to be a moderate.

But Prodi's failure to get his choice elected in the early
rounds, and the fact 540 people did not vote for Napolitano on
Wednesday, highlighted the challenge he will have in order to
achieve painful reforms economists say Italy needs.

In the face of Berlusconi's hostile opposition, Prodi, a
former economics professor and European Commission president,
will have to rely on the consistent support of a patchwork
coalition ranging from the Catholic center to the hard left.

Napolitano, a former house speaker and interior minister
who was appointed to the rare honorary position of senator for
life last year, will be Italy's 11th post-World War Two head of

The post of president is largely ceremonial but he has the
power to name the prime minister, dissolve parliament and send
legislation back to parliament if he deems it unconstitutional.

(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella, Silvia Aloisi,
Phil Stewart, Paolo Biondi and Giselda Vagnoni)