May 9, 2006

Italian lawmakers to vote again on president

By Silvia Aloisi

ROME (Reuters) - Fresh voting to elect Italy's new
president was starting on Tuesday with the man backed by the
incoming centre-left government looking closer to becoming the
first ex-communist to be chosen as the country's head of state.

More than 1,000 lawmakers and regional representatives were
due to convene at 0930 GMT to begin a second round of voting
after the first ballot on Monday proved inconclusive.

If, as expected, no candidate gets a two-thirds majority --
which is impossible without an agreement between the center
left and the center right opposition -- a third round will be
held later on Tuesday.

Prime minister-in-waiting Romano Prodi, who narrowly won
last month's general election, cannot take office until the new
president gives him a mandate.

Berlusconi's bloc on Monday refused to vote for the
centre-left's candidate, Giorgio Napolitano, an 80-year-old
senator-for-life of the Democrats of the Left (DS), Italy's
former communist party.

But in late-night meetings, two key parties in Berlusconi's
coalition, the National Alliance and the Union of Christian
Democrats, signaled they were ready to back Napolitano.

Berlusconi himself, who said at the weekend any left-wing
candidate would be an "indecent proposal," also struck a more
conciliatory note.

"Napolitano's candidacy is not to be excluded, we are
working to get a wider agreement," he told reporters after
meeting his allies.

But in the Byzantine world of Italian politics, no one
expected the election of the president to be straightforward.


With no deal in the bag yet, Prodi again instructed his
supporters to leave their ballots blank in Tuesday's first
vote, as behind-the-scenes negotiations with the center right

"We're going to post blank ballots this morning," Prodi
told reporters.

The center left's strategy is to refrain from writing
Napolitano's name in ballots until it is sure he has a good
chance of winning.

Media reports said centre-right lawmakers might be
persuaded to back Napolitano in the third round of voting
despite strong opposition from the Northern League, a party in
Berlusconi's coalition.

From the fourth round of votes on Wednesday morning, a
simple majority is sufficient to elect the president.

That means that if Prodi fails to reach a bipartisan deal
on Tuesday, he should be able to use his slim majority to force
his candidate through from Wednesday.

But he only enjoys a very slim majority in parliament and
he is keen to be seen as seeking a compromise with the center
right on the presidency, a largely ceremonial post.

Napolitano, a quiet-spoken elder statesman, was put forward
only after Berlusconi ruled out backing the higher-profile but
divisive Massimo D'Alema, chairman of the Democrats of the
Left, who, like Napolitano, is a former member of the Communist

Political pundits speculate that, if a two-thirds majority
cannot be found on Tuesday, D'Alema may return as the
front-runner when the simple majority rule comes into effect.