April 29, 2006

Senate vote setback weakens Italy’s Prodi

By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) - Romano Prodi's hopes of forming a stable
government suffered a setback on Saturday after he failed to
win backing for his candidate to become speaker of Italy's
upper house in three successive votes.

Prodi's center-left coalition has two more chances to elect
its candidate on Saturday in ballots at which the margin needed
for victory will be lowered each time.

The Senate session resumed at 10:30 a.m. (0830 GMT) but
voting only started two hours later. Prodi's candidate, Franco
Marini, is still favorite to clinch the constitutionally
important post.

But commentators said the fact he failed to get an absolute
majority in the first three votes showed Prodi did not have
reliable support in the Senate and would struggle to get
legislation approved.

"The Prodi government, if it ever sees the light of day,
will have to get used to living with an abacus in its hands,"
said leftist daily la Repubblica. "If the coalition doesn't
close ranks it seriously risks committing suicide."

Prodi admitted things had not gone as he had hoped but said
there was no reason for alarm. "We knew the decisive day was
going to be today," he told reporters.

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 dismay over the
setback in the Senate, where at least one center-left
parliamentarian apparently failed to back Marini.

Some of Prodi's allies openly argued with each other in the
Senate as the hunt started for possible traitors.

"All day we have seen that the (center left) does not have
the majority they have claimed to have. At this point, after
this Senate vote, they should not receive a mandate to govern,"
said Roberto Calderoli, a former Berlusconi minister.

Prodi won the parliamentary election on April 9/10 by the
smallest margin in modern Italian history, giving his broad
coalition, which spans communists to Roman Catholics, just a
two-seat majority in the 322-seat upper house.


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

In the third vote, which finished after midnight, Marini
ended up one vote short of victory.

Misspellings appeared in all three votes, but in the
country which gave the world Machiavelli, few people believed
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. On Saturday the center left's
candidate for speaker, veteran communist Fausto Bertinotti, won
an absolute majority of 337 votes in the 630-seat chamber.

When the Senate speaker has also been chosen, attention
will switch to Prodi's slightly battered plans to form a
government, which have been held up by a constitutional logjam.

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