Ex-Communist picked as Italy's president


ROME -- Ending days of secret balloting and backroom dealing, the Italian parliament elected yesterday an 80-year-old former Communist as president of the nation, the final step before a new government can be seated.

It is the first time a Communist has been chosen for the post that is largely ceremonial yet critical in bringing together bitterly divided Italian political factions.

The earliest and most important act that President-elect Giorgio Napolitano will perform as head of state is to invite center-left leader Romano Prodi to form a government. Prodi and his coalition narrowly won elections in April but under Italy's parliamentary system cannot govern until the president asks them to do so.

Prodi defeated Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the center-right alliance that had ruled for the past five years.

Berlusconi refused for weeks to accept defeat and has vowed to fight Prodi every step of the way. In the latest evidence of that stance, it took two days and three rounds of voting before Napolitano could gain the number of votes necessary to prevail as president. He was Prodi's candidate and was opposed by Berlusconi.

"We tried to stop this because it was clear ... that this is not what the nation wanted," Berlusconi said in offering tepid congratulations to Napolitano, who long served as a prominent member of the Italian Communist Party. He complained that the highest offices in the land were being "occupied by the left" but said he hoped Napolitano would be "impartial."

Prodi was relieved and labeled Napolitano's election as the "historic" selection of a man who is balanced, fair and sensible.

"I hoped to reach [victory] with consensus of the right," Prodi said, "but unfortunately the political circumstances and such strong electoral tension ... have prevented agreement."

Under the rules for choosing the president, after three rounds of voting, the requirement for a two-thirds majority is relaxed for that of an absolute majority. Napolitano won 543 votes, 38 more than necessary but not a landslide given the total electorate of 1,009 members. Prodi earlier dropped his preferred but more divisive candidate, Massimo d'Alema, head of the largest leftist party in his coalition.

The seven-year presidential post is ceremonial but has several important duties, including the power to dissolve parliament and throw back to lawmakers any legislation the president considers unconstitutional or ill-advised. Moreover, he is seen as the figure who rises above the fray and calms fevered political divisions.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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