May 9, 2006

Prodi sticks to candidate in Italy presidential vote

By Silvia Aloisi

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's incoming prime minister said on
Tuesday he was determined to support the center left's
candidate, a former communist, for head of state despite
opposition from Silvio Berlusconi's conservative bloc.

Prime minister-in-waiting Romano Prodi made the comment
following a second, inconclusive ballot on Tuesday and hours
after his archrival Berlusconi said there was "no room for
agreement" on the candidate, Giorgio Napolitano.

Asked whether his bloc still backed Napolitano after two
inconclusive rounds of votes, Prodi said: "A full yes for
Napolitano, also tomorrow."

On Wednesday, the margin needed to elect Italy's president
will be drastically reduced from a two-thirds majority to an
absolute majority, meaning that Prodi can use his coalition's
slim advantage in parliament to force his man through.

The move is likely to exacerbate tensions with the center
right and pave the way for head-on confrontation between the
two sides on just about any future issue.

The center left has appealed to parties in Berlusconi's
bloc -- which are divided over Napolitano, an 80-year old life
senator for the Democrats of the Left -- to throw their support
behind him in Wednesday's ballot.

The vote to pick Italy's 11th postwar head of state is the
first major test for Prodi since he narrowly won last month's
general election.

It has painfully underscored the difficulty he will have in
pushing through his policy agenda with a wafer-thin
parliamentary majority.


The post of president is largely ceremonial but under the
constitution the head of state names the prime minister and
dissolves parliament -- prerogatives which could be crucial for
Prodi as he prepares to form a government.

Prodi cannot take office until the new president gives him
a mandate.

Both sides said they would again cast blank ballots in the
third voting round on Tuesday night as negotiations continued.
That means that ballot is also set to end in deadlock.

However, from the fourth round of voting due to start on
Wednesday, an absolute majority of 505 votes will be enough,
instead of the 673 needed in the first three ballots.

Prodi had been keen to seek a compromise with the center
right and avoid a head-on battle which would make it harder for
him to push through his policies in the future.

But he also needs to affirm his leadership as the head of a
broad coalition, ranging from moderate Roman Catholics to
hardline communists, and not be seen as vulnerable to
centre-right pressure.

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. Both are former members of the Communist Party.