Romano Prodi yesterday stumbled in his first attempt to clamber over the next of the hurdles that stand between him and the post of prime minister of Italy, as the nation's politicians who had crowded into the Chamber of Deputies were unable to elect a new head of state.
President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi's seven-year term is about to end and the 85-year-old former prime minister has turned a deaf ear to appeals from both right and left to serve another term. No Italian president has ever served two terms, he points out, and he wants to spend more time with his family. His successor must be elected before Mr Prodi can be sworn in as Prime Minister.
Senators and deputies assembled with 58 regional representatives to constitute the 1010 "Grand Electors". In three ballots, one yesterday and two today, the new president must obtain two-thirds of the vote. If no one obtains that, come Wednesday he can be voted in by a simple majority.
In the first ballot yesterday, the centre-right's House of Liberties was expected to vote en masse for Gianni Letta, Silvio Berlusconi's right-hand man, while the centre-left entered blank voting slips. Their chosen candidate is a veteran former communist, Giorgio Napolitano, but they filed blank slips to avoid "burning" his candidacy in an inconclusive first round. With about 80 per cent of the votes counted, there was no mathematical possibility that any candidate would get the required two-thirds majority, but some of Mr Berlusconi's faction said they would be prepared to start voting for Mr Napolitano in today's ballots.
Italy's president is a largely ceremonial figure but can play a vital role in moments of crisis. Mr Ciampi, a former prime minister and Bank of Italy president, has frequently cried foul when Mr Berlusconi tried to ram through laws tailored to his own interests.
But compelled by the need to pacify the volatile components of his coalition, Mr Prodi seems to have decided that satisfying the historic grudges of his allies is more important than finding a consensus president. For more than 50 years after the Second World War, no communist held the post of either prime minister of president, despite the fact that it was the second-largest party in the country and the biggest communist party in western Europe. Cold War logic forbade it.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Italy's communists and post-communists have been trying to right that historic wrong. In 1998, Massimo D'Alema, president of the Left Democrats, the reconstituted communist party, became the first ex-communist to become prime minister. And now Prodi and his allies, who last week got the first ever communist elected President (speaker) of the Chamber of Deputies, are trying to repeat the trick with the job of head of state.
Their first choice was again Massimo D'Alema. When Mr Berlusconi vetoed that, they proposed Giorgio Napolitano, an 81-year old former speaker of the Senate who throughout his career in the Communist Party was a consistent voice of moderation. He is highly respected on both sides of the political divide.
The centre-right has responded with a list of four candidates, at least three of whom are plausible and would gather wide support in both coalitions. But none of them is communist - so the centre-left does not want to know. Mr Prodi's coalition has the numbers to get Mr Napolitano elected in the fourth round, when a simple majority is sufficient to win the ballot. But Mr Prodi's prestige and his claims to act for the nation as a whole could take a battering even before he comes to power.Reuse content