April 28, 2006

Italy’s Prodi slips at first parliamentary hurdle

By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) - Prime-minister-in-waiting Romano Prodi
stumbled at his first parliamentary hurdle on Friday, when his
center-left candidate failed to secure an absolute majority in
a vote for the speaker of the Italian upper house Senate.

The result on the opening day of the new parliament mean
the Senate will have to hold a second and possibly even a third
vote to decide who will take the prestigious position.

At least one center-left senator, and probably more,
refused to back their candidate in the secret vote, underlining
the problems Prodi will face when he takes office -- a fact
leapt on by allies of center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi.

"The countdown for early elections has started because as
you can see, there is not majority here," said Paolo Guzzanti,
a senator in Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy) party.

Some of Prodi's supporters were equally downcast.

"Things are going badly in the Senate ... It's a shame this
legislature will last such a short time," Fabio Mussi, a senior
member of the Democrats of the Left (DS) party, was quoted as
saying by the Ansa and Agi news agencies.

Prodi's broad coalition secured just a two-seat majority in
the Senate at the April 9, 10 general election and the vote for
the speaker is seen as a litmus test of its ability to govern.

The center-left speaker candidate, former union leader
Franco Marini, won 157 votes against 140 for 87-year-old elder
statesman Giulio Andreotti. A further 25 votes went to other
candidates or were declared void.

The center-left has 158 senators, all of whom voted. Four
life senators and one independent had promised to back Marini,
which should have lifted his tally to 163 votes -- enough to
claim the necessary absolute majority in the 322-seat house.


Senators will hold a second ballot later on Friday and if
that fails to produce a winner then a third ballot will be held
on Saturday where a simple majority will suffice.

Some center-left politicians have warned that if Marini
should lose the race, Prodi would not be able to guarantee
political stability and early elections might be inevitable.

"If Andreotti should win in the Senate then we will all
have to go home," said Giulio Santagata, political co-ordinator
of the center-left Olive Tree alliance, which combines Prodi's
two largest political allies.

Berlusconi has not yet conceded defeat in the election,
citing widespread voting irregularities. However, political
sources said he would probably hand in his resignation if
Marini became speaker.

Newspapers have also said that if Marini wins comfortably,
President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi might appoint Prodi prime
minister within days rather than weeks, as previously expected.

Reporters said Prodi scrunched up his face in
disappointment when he heard news of the Senate setback.

Berlusconi has thrown his weight behind the hunched
Andreotti, who once stood trial for Mafia collusion, hoping
that a handful of center-left admirers might also back him.

The center-left enjoys almost a 70-seat majority in the
lower house, thanks to a new electoral system which provided
the general election victor with an automatic winners' bonus.

This means the center-left candidate for speaker in that
chamber, veteran communist Fausto Bertinotti, should be

Under the terms of the constitution, the president has to
appoint a new prime minister, but the situation is complicated
this year because Ciampi's mandate expires in May and he wants
his successor to do the honors.

However, concerns over a prolonged power vacuum might
persuade him to nominate Prodi himself in the coming days.

Many parliamentarians want the 85-year-old Ciampi to be
given a second mandate. The fact that both he and seven-times
prime minister Andreotti are viewed as serious candidates for
Italy's top two institutional jobs show the power the older
generation wields in this rapidly aging country.

(Additional reporting by Giselda Vagnoni, Paolo Biondi and
Roberto Landucci in Rome)