April 28, 2006

Italy’s Prodi suffers Senate setback

By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) - Prime minister-in-waiting Romano Prodi
failed early Saturday to impose his candidate for speaker of
Italy's upper house following three secret ballots that laid
bare the fragility of his parliamentary majority.

A fourth and final vote will be held on Saturday morning,
where the margin needed to clinch victory will be lowered,
which should open the way for Prodi's ally Franco Marini to
finally clinch the prestigious post in the upper house Senate.

But the fact that he was unable to secure an absolute
majority in three initial votes, which at times verged on the
farcical, revealed divisions in center-left ranks and suggested
Prodi will struggle to get legislation through parliament.

Supporters of outgoing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
watched the center-left's problems with glee and said Prodi
should not be given the go-ahead to form a government because
he could not guarantee political stability.

Prodi's allies struggled to hide their gloom over the
setback in the Senate, where at least one center-left
parliamentarian apparently failed to back Marini.

"It obviously means that someone is playing a parallel
game. At this point it is legitimate to suspect that someone in
the center-left is underestimating what is going on," said
Pierluigi Castagnetti, a leader of the moderate Daisy Party.

Prodi won the April 9, 10 general election by the smallest
margin in modern Italian history, giving his broad coalition,
which spans hardcore communists to Roman Catholic centrists,
just a two-seat majority in the 322-seat Senate.

The showdown for the Senate speaker pitted former union
leader Marini against the 87-year-old elder statesman Giulio
Andreotti, a seven-times prime minister backed by Berlusconi.


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

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

After lengthy deliberations, acting Senate Speaker Oscar
Luigi Scalfaro annulled the vote and demanded it be taken
again. But Marini once more fell just short, this time by one

Misspellings appeared in all three votes, but in the
country which gave the world Machiavelli, few people thought
the errors were genuine. Rather they were seen as veiled
warnings that support from some senators could not be taken for

"Ballots with the name Francesco Marini offered a clear
signal ... a signal from senators bargaining for their votes,"
said outgoing Justice Minister Roberto Castelli.

Prodi's position in the lower house is much stronger,
thanks to a new electoral system which provided the general
election victor with a winner's bonus of more than 60 seats.

But even there, Prodi experienced problems on Friday, with
almost 80 centre-left parliamentarians failing to vote for the
bloc's official candidate for lower house speaker, veteran
communist Fausto Bertinotti, in two opening ballots.

Bertinotti was expected to win in final voting 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.

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