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Napolitano, Italy's first president to be re-elected

87-year-old also nation's first former Communist head of state

22 April, 16:53
Napolitano, Italy's first president to be re-elected

(By Paul Virgo) (ANSA) - Rome - Giorgio Napolitano again made history on April 20 when he became the first Italian president to be re-elected.

It is a second big first for the 87-year-old, who also became the first former Communist to fill the country's highest institutional post when he was sworn in as head of state seven years ago.

At the time, the former interior minister and House speaker was already the second-oldest president to take office after Sandro Pertini, who was 82 when he was elected in 1978.

Before his re-election, Napolitano had repeatedly ruled out serving a second term. "I am convinced that the founding fathers conceived the role of President of the Republic as measured in seven year terms," Napolitano said in March.

"It is not a coincidence that no other president has served a second term. There are age factors and its limitations to consider".

Napolitano, the country's 11th president, was a top member of the former Italian Communist Party (PCI).

A pragmatic moderate, he was also a champion of the party's transformation into a social democratic party, the Democratic Party of the Left (subsequently the Democratic Left) after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Napolitano was born in Naples on June 29, 1925, the son of a high-profile city lawyer. A theatre and cinema enthusiast, Napolitano's initial bid to study literature at Naples University was thwarted by his father, who instead forced his son into taking law.

During the Second World War, Napolitano suspended his studies, joining an anti-Fascist underground organisation in 1942. A year later, his excellent English allowed him to act as an interpreter when Allied forces entered Naples.

At the end of the war, he entered the PCI, causing a lengthy rift with his anti-Communist, conservative father.

He also returned to university where he completed his law degree and became active in student politics.

In 1953, he was elected to parliament for the first time at the age of 28.

Over the next 30 years, during which he rose through the party ranks to become one of the PCI's most prominent figures, Napolitano gained a reputation for tact and moderation.

But he also angered more militant members by taking an increasingly pro-US and pro-European line.

In 1978, Napolitano became the first PCI representative to receive a visa to the United States, where he toured the country's most prestigious universities and won a sympathetic hearing also by virtue of his excellent English.

He worked tirelessly to bring the PCI - at the time, the biggest Communist party in Europe - into the family of European social democracy and anchor it to the western world, while also striving for unity with Bettino Craxi's Socialists.

At a PCI congress in 1986, Napolitano made a speech in which he described the party as "an integral part of the European Left".

In the early 1990s, Napolitano took on a new role as the head of international relations for the PCI and subsequently as shadow foreign minister for the Democratic Party of the Left.

In 1992, he was elected speaker of the House.

When Silvio Berlusconi won the 1994 general election, Napolitano consolidated his image as a man of dialogue with a speech in which he called for "constructive relations between the majority and the opposition". In a moment famously captured on camera, Berlusconi subsequently crossed the floor and shook his hand.

Four years later, Napolitano became interior minister in Romano Prodi's first government, which was brought down in late 1998 by a coalition ally.

In 2005, he was made a life senator - a rare honour - by his predecessor as president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

He was elected after Romano Prodi's centre-left alliance defeated Berlusconi narrowly in the 2006 general election.

At first his election was met with skepticism from the centre right, but his measured, balanced style and incisive action in periods of crisis has earned him the respect of politicians of all stripes.

He won international praise for the way he used his limited powers to good effect to help give life to outgoing Premier Mario Monti's emergency government of unelected technocrats in November 2011 after Berlusconi was forced to resign as prime minister because of the country's financial crisis. Napolitano is married to another former Communist and lawyer, Clio Napolitano, by whom he has two sons.

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