April 29, 2006

Prodi’s man named Senate head

By Gavin Jones

ROME (Reuters) - Prospective prime minister Romano Prodi
managed to get his candidate elected speaker of Italy's upper
house at the fourth attempt on Saturday, but the drawn-out vote
showed coalition cracks that bode ill for future stability.

The fact that it took four ballots to elect Franco Marini
prompted many commentators to warn that the slimness of Prodi's
centre-left majority may not suffice to keep him in power long.

"The Prodi government, if it ever sees the light of day,
will have to get used to living with an abacus in its hands,"
wrote the leftist daily La Repubblica after the coalition
failed to unite around Marini in the first three votes.

"If the coalition doesn't close ranks it seriously risks
committing suicide."

Prodi made light of the problems ahead after his man
finally clinched victory with 165 votes in the 322-seat Senate,
against 156 for the center right's candidate, 87-year-old elder
statesman Giulio Andreotti.

"Today we have a positive situation and I believe the
legislature can begin well," Prodi told reporters. "In four
hours, everything has fallen into place."

Ealier on Saturday, veteran communist leader Fausto
Bertinotti, was elected president of the lower house, the
Chamber of Deputies, where Prodi's majority is bigger.


Eyes will now turn to the outgoing prime minister, Silvio
Berlusconi, who alleges election fraud and has still not
formally conceded defeat.

On Saturday, seeming to acknowledge for the first time that
his days as prime minister were almost over, he told reporters
he would tender his resignation to President Carlo Azeglio
Ciampi "at the right time."

Ciampi would normally have the task of asking Prodi to form
a government, but his term of office expires in mid-May and he
has indicated the job should fall to his successor.

Prodi would like to be nominated before then, but
Berlusconi insists that it would be premature for Ciampi to
call on his opponent, especially after the centre-left's
embarrassing performance in the Senate vote.

"Yesterday it was shown that there is no real majority in
the Senate, so no one will be able to govern," Berlusconi said.

Prodi insisted he was in no hurry. "I am not pushing for
anything. I have to be ready, then the president of the
republic will decide when to call me."

While he waits for the call from Ciampi or his successor,
Prodi is working with his partners to put together a cabinet
team -- which will have to find quick remedies for Italy's
struggling economy and wayward public finances.

Prodi won the election by the smallest margin in modern
Italian history.

On paper his coalition, which spans communists and Roman
Catholics, has only a two-seat majority in the Senate, although
it should also be able to count on the support of several
life-senators who are appointed by the president, not elected.

In the first three Senate votes, Marini's chances were
scuppered by blank and spoiled ballot sheets which were widely
seen as veiled warnings to Prodi from centre-left senators
warning that their support should not be taken for granted.

In the country that gave the world Machiavelli, few people
believed that a variety of misspellings of Marini's name were
genuine mistakes.

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

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