May 9, 2006

Italy set to elect ex-communist as president

By Rachel Sanderson

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's incoming government is set to
elect the country's first former communist as president on
Wednesday in the face of opposition from most of Prime Minister
Silvio Berlusconi's conservative bloc.

Prime minister-in-waiting Romano Prodi has vowed to ram
through his candidate, Giorgio Napolitano, after two days of
wrangling and inconclusive ballots.

Winning the vote is vital for Prodi to show his leftist
coalition can govern with the smallest majority in post-war
Italy and with Berlusconi mounting a fierce opposition.

"If the center left doesn't want to kill itself it must
show it is compact and regain some votes from the opposition,"
Clemente Mastella, leader of the leftist UDEUR party said.

The vote starts at 0730 GMT (3 a.m. EDT) and Prodi, after a
meeting with his deputies late on Tuesday, said his entire bloc
would vote for Napolitano in the third round, when the margin
needed to elect the president will be substantially reduced.

Napolitano, an 80-year-old life senator for the Democrats
of the Left, failed to gain the two-thirds majority needed in
previous voting rounds, but from Wednesday an absolute majority
will be enough to elect Italy's 11th post-war head of state.

The move, however, will underscore the divisions in Italy's
electorate and exacerbate tensions with the center right.

It may also prove risky, 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

But Berlusconi, who needs to show he can hold his own bloc
together now it is in opposition, has encouraged centrists to
vote against Napolitano because of his communist past.

The stakes are also high for the billionaire media mogul
because a landslide vote for Napolitano would indicate center
right defections in protest against his leadership.

"Napolitano is a communist and I will not legitimize him.
We will march in the streets to say the left have occupied the
fortresses of power," Berlusconi said.

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.

Massimo D'Alema, Democrats of the Left chairman and a
presidential candidate until rejected by Berlusconi last week,
said Prodi could name his government by the end of the week.

"It is possible that the mandate to form a new government
could come on Sunday," D'Alema told Sky TG24 news.