May 8, 2006

Stalemate seen in first vote for Italy president

By Robin Pomeroy

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's outgoing Prime Minister Silvio
Berlusconi refused to support the incoming center-left
government's candidate for new state president in Monday's
first ballot, guaranteeing a stalemate in a vote in parliament.

Incoming Prime Minister Romano Prodi -- who cannot take
office until a new president is elected -- had proposed
80-year-old Giorgio Napolitano as a compromise after Berlusconi
said he would not accept a more high-profile leftist

The 1,010 "grand electors," made up of lawmakers and
regional representatives, began voting by secret ballot at
around 4:25 p.m. (1425 GMT) to choose a successor to President
Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, whose 7-year term expires this month.

But shortly before the vote, Berlusconi said his
center-right bloc would vote instead for his closest political
aide, Gianni Letta, in the secret ballot of parliamentarians
and regional government representatives.

Without the support of a large chunk of the center right,
Prodi will be unable to secure the two-thirds majority of 674
needed to elect a president in the first three rounds of

Acknowledging they would not be able to push through their
candidate in Monday's vote, Prodi's bloc said the center left
would not bother to write in the name of Napolitano on their
voting forms but instead cast blank ballots.

That would mean he could remain a candidate in further
rounds of voting without being tainted by a string of defeats.

Prodi said the center left had decided on the tactic while
it waited for more signals from the center right on the
possibility of agreeing on a candidate.

By the fourth round, which would happen on Wednesday if the
stalemate continues, a simple majority is sufficient, meaning
Prodi may be able to push his candidate through against the
opposition's wishes.

Whether that candidate remains Napolitano, an 80-year-old
former parliamentary speaker and interior minister from the
Democrats of the Left (DS) party, remains to be seen.


Members of DS, the biggest party in Prodi's coalition,
initially wanted its chairman, the 57-year-old former prime
minister Massimo D'Alema, elected to the country's top job, but
he was rejected by the center right as being too partisan.

Some analysts have suggested that Prodi only put forward
Napolitano as a kind of "stalking horse," intending to revert
to proposing D'Alema if Napolitano does not get broad backing.

While Prodi could use his slim majority to push though the
center left's candidate, that would increase the bitterness
between the two camps and could make it harder for him to carry
through his policy program once in government.

On Sunday, Berlusconi's allies put forward four names they
would like to see as candidates, none of them from the DS. They
included former prime ministers Giuliano Amato and Lamberto
Dini, as well as former European Commissioner Mario Monti.

Whereas outgoing President Ciampi enjoys cross-party
support and was elected in the first round seven years ago, it
took 13 days to elect his predecessor in 1992 amid the "clean
hands" corruption scandal.

(Additional reporting by Gavin Jones, Philip Pullella,
Paolo Biondi and Stefano Bernabei)