Ciampi, 78, wins Italian presidency

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The Independent Online
THE MAN who made his life mission ensuring Italy qualified for the single European currency, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, 78, was elected President of Italy yesterday in the first ballot. Mr Ciampi, currently Minister for Finance, will succeed Oscar Luigi Scalfaro. The appointment, by 1,010 grandi elettori MPs and some regional representatives, was greeted with satisfaction by economists, trade unionists and politicians.

The election of Mr Ciampi was widely forecast after an eleventh-hour agreement between the government and opposition to support the former central banker, bringing a swift and dignified end to a presidential race that had all the characteristics of old-style political bickering and deals worked out behind closed doors.

Applause broke out in the parliament in Rome as Mr Ciampi reached the two-thirds quorum needed to be elected. Reacting with characteristic modesty, he said: "Your statement honours me. I am deeply moved. I hope to be up to the job." It is only the third time since 1948 that the head of state has been elected in the first ballot; 16 ballots were needed to elect President Scalfaro.

One of the first to congratulate Mr Ciampi was the newly installed president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi. "Ciampi is the man who held firm when times were tough. I think this announcement will immediately give a stronger, more credible image to our country," he said.

Mr Ciampi came to politics late after a career as an economist and 14 years as director of the Italian Central Bank. He accepted the job of Prime Minister for one year from April 1993, overseeing a time of political and economic turbulence. For him the economic rigour and sacrifices required to meet the Maastricht criteria became a personal mission.

The new President has never been affiliated to any party, a plus in the presidential role, which is to represent the nation and act as referee in political squabbling.

Mr Ciampi's style has always been highly reserved, with a preference for facts and figures over political rhetoric. He is a lover of classical literature and music, and professes a secret passion for chocolate. Sirens sounded in his home town, the Tuscan port of Livorno, as the news of his appointment broke.

Walter Veltroni, the head of the main left-wing party DS, said: "No one has lost and no one has won."

Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the opposition Freedom Front, said: "It was important to give an example of responsibility to the country in the current tragic international context." While the opposition gave its support there was some resistance within the five-party government coalition.

Confindustria, the Italian employers' body, said the new President would be "able to give a new push to the overall strengthening of the country that would come through institutional reforms, the consolidation of financial belt-tightening and projects to favour development and employment". Even the trade unions, who felt the sacrifices requested to enter Europe fell largely on workers, acknowledged that Mr Ciampi was a loyal negotiator.

Various parties expressed the hope that the convergence of interests that elected Mr Ciampi will help to restart the stalled reform process. One of the issues on the table is the direct election of the head of state by the Italian populace. If that was to pass, Mr Ciampi would be expected to step down.

He will take on his new role on 28 May unless Mr Scalfaro opts to resign ahead of time.