May 9, 2006

Prodi sticks to his man in Italy president vote

By Silvia Aloisi

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's incoming prime minister said on
Tuesday the center left was ready to go it alone and push
through its candidate, a former communist, for head of state
despite opposition from Silvio Berlusconi's conservative bloc.

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

Prodi, who only has a slim parliamentary majority, said his
bloc would vote for Napolitano on Wednesday, when the margin
needed to elect the president will be substantially reduced.

"We have simply decided all together to vote for
Napolitano," he said after a meeting with his top allies.

"The decision was quick and unanimous. I hope there will be
the largest possible consensus."

From Wednesday, an absolute majority will be enough to
elect Italy's 11th post-war head of state instead of the
two-thirds majority required in previous voting rounds.

That means that Prodi will be able use his coalition's
narrow advantage to force his man through if necessary.

The move, however, would underscore deep divisions in
Italy's electorate and is likely to exacerbate tensions with
the center right.

It could also prove a risky gamble, because the secret
ballot allows snipers on all sides to vote as they please. On
paper, Prodi can count on 540 votes, 35 more than the absolute
majority required.

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.

At least one party in Berlusconi's coalition, the Union of
Christian Democrats, said on Tuesday it disagreed with his veto
of the soft-spoken, moderate former lower house speaker, and
indicated they could break ranks and vote for him.


The vote for the new head of state is the first major test
for Prodi since he narrowly won last month's general election.

It has painfully highlighted 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.

But the stakes are also high for Berlusconi, who needs to
show he can hold his own bloc together now it is in opposition.
A high vote for Napolitano would indicate defections in the
center right as a protest against Berlusconi's leadership.

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

Prodi had been keen to seek a compromise with the center
right and avoid a showdown 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.