May 9, 2006

Italian lawmakers vote again on president

By Silvia Aloisi

ROME (Reuters) - A new ballot to elect Italy's next
president started on Tuesday with the man backed by the
incoming centre-left government seen inching closer to becoming
the country's first former communist to be elected head of

But the result of the first of the day's two voting rounds
was almost certain to be inconclusive as both the centre-left
and centre-right blocs decided to cast blank ballots while they
held frantic talks to try to reach a consensus.

More than 1,000 lawmakers and regional representatives met
for a second round of voting after the first ballot on Monday
failed to elect Italy's 11th post-war head of state, a largely
ceremonial post.

If, as expected, no candidate gets a two-thirds majority --
which is impossible without an agreement between the center
left and the centre-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.

Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right 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 two key parties in Berlusconi's coalition, the National
Alliance and the Union of Christian Democrats (UDC), have since
distanced themselves from the media tycoon's "red scare"
slogans and signaled they were ready to back Napolitano.

"For the UDC, Napolitano fulfils the criteria of
impartiality ... for the Quirinale (presidential palace)," said
Mario Baccini, a minister in Berlusconi's outgoing government.

Signaling deep divisions within the center right, the
Northern League said however Berlusconi's bloc would not back
Napolitano in either of the two voting rounds due to take place
on Tuesday.

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


With no deal 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 continued.

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, but
that was far from certain.

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 parliamentary
majority to force his candidate through from Wednesday.

But he is keen to be seen as seeking a compromise with the
center right on the presidency.

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.