May 10, 2006

Italy chooses president

By Robin Pomeroy

ROME (Reuters) - Italy picked a former communist, Giorgio
Napolitano, to be its new president on Wednesday, opening the
way for Romano Prodi to become prime minister more than a month
after winning a close-run general election.

Napolitano, an 80-year-old senator for life, secured 543
votes from the "grand electors" -- parliamentarians and
regional representatives --, 38 more than the absolute majority

The result was a crucial victory for Prodi who cannot take
his centre-left coalition into power until the new president
gives him a mandate to govern.

It was the latest blow to outgoing Prime Minister Silvio
Berlusconi, the media tycoon who took three took three weeks to
accept he lost the April 9-10 national election by a whisker.

After the vote, Prodi told reporters he expected his
government to be sworn in by next Wednesday, after Napolitano
takes over from President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi on Monday and
begins his seven-year term.

"A man has been elected who will demonstrate the unity of
the country and he will be appreciated by everybody," Prodi
told Reuters Television.

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.


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.

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

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 head of state since 1945.

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 Giselda Vagnoni, Paolo Biondi,
Antonio Denti, Philip Pullella, Silvia Aloisi, Phil Stewart)