April 28, 2006

Italy’s Prodi suffers setback in Senate drama

By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) - Prime-minister-in-waiting Romano Prodi
suffered an embarrassing setback on Friday when a centre-left
ally failed to secure victory in two highly charged votes to
elect a speaker for Italy's upper house.

The ballots, which took place on the opening day of the new
parliament and verged on the farcical at times, underscored the
serious problems Prodi will face trying to govern with the tiny
majority he carved out in a general election this month.

The Senate showdown pitted former union leader Franco
Marini against 87-year-old elder statesman Giulio Andreotti,
who once stood trial for Mafia collusion and is being used by
outgoing prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to expose Prodi's

Marini failed to win the necessary absolute majority in the
first secret vote by five ballots.

In the subsequent vote, a preliminary count showed he had
won by one ballot, but this result was contested by
centre-right politicians who complained that Marini's first
name was given as Francesco on two of the hand-written ballots,
making them void.

After lengthy deliberations, provisional Senate speaker
Oscar Luigi Scalfaro told the house that the whole second round
would be annulled and repeated later on Friday evening, with a
result expected around midnight (2200 GMT).

The first vote was also marked by misspelt ballot papers,
but in the country which gave the world Machiavelli, few people
thought the errors were genuine. Rather they were seen as
furtive signals from centre-left senators warning Prodi their
support could not be taken for granted.

"Things are going badly in the Senate ... It's a shame this
legislature will last such a short time," said Fabio Mussi, a
senior member of the Democrats of the Left (DS) party, the
largest force in Prodi's broad coalition.


Prodi won this month's election by the smallest margin in
modern Italian history, giving him just a two-seat advantage in
the 322-seat Senate.

Berlusconi has refused to concede defeat, citing widespread
irregularities, and his supporters reveled in Prodi's woes.

"The countdown for early elections has started because as
you can see, there is no majority here," said Paolo Guzzanti, a
senator in Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy) party, after
the first ballot.

If Friday's repeated vote fails to give either candidate an
absolute majority, a third ballot will be held on Saturday
where a simple majority will suffice.

Even some centre-left politicians have warned that a defeat
for Marini would indicate that Prodi could not govern.

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

Prodi scrunched up his face in disappointment when he heard
news of the Senate setback, but he later told reporters he
remained confident of victory.

The centre-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 centre-left candidate for speaker in that
chamber, veteran communist Fausto Bertinotti, should be elected
with ease in a vote due on Saturday.

Once the two speakers have been picked, attention will
switch to Prodi's plans to form a government, which have been
held up by a constitutional logjam.

Under the constitution, the head of state appoints a new
prime minister, but the situation is complicated this year
because President Carlo Azeglio 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.

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