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Centre left choose Prodi as presidential candidate

PD move to regain unity angers Berlusconi's party

19 April, 15:12
Centre left choose Prodi as presidential candidate

(By Paul Virgo)

(ANSA) - Rome, April 19 - Italy's centre left tried to bury its internal rifts Friday when the Democratic Party (PD) chose former European Commission president and twice Italian premier Romano Prodi to be its new presidential candidate.

But the move has infuriated Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PdL) party.

The head of state represents national unity and usually a figure capable of winning broad cross-party party support is sought for the role. However, Prodi, a 73-year-old former economics professor, is seen as the nemesis of three-time premier Berlusconi after defeating him at the helm of centre-left alliances in elections in 1996 and 2006. "Prodi is an option that divides us. This is the opposite of what Italy needs," said PdL Senator Maurizio Gasparri. In the first ballot to elect the new head of state on Thursday the PdL backed former Senate Speaker Franco Marini, who had been proposed by the PD. But Marini failed to prevail after an internal PD revolt so centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani dropped him on Friday and proposed Prodi.

Many saw 80-year-old Marini, a member of the Catholic wing of the party, as a representative of Italy's discredited old political class. Others in the party were unhappy at the "method" used to select Marini. Bersani consulted Berlusconi before proposing him and some suggested there had been a "shady deal" which saw the ex-premier's People of Freedom (PdL) party backing Marini. "The PD reached an agreement with us over Marini that it could not honour, or did not want to honour," said Fabrizio Cicchitto, the PdL's former House whip. "It's clear that by choosing Prodi they've caused a rift".

The PD and the PdL both told their lawmakers and representatives of regional governments to cast blank papers in the two inconclusive votes in the two ballots that followed Marini's failure.

Bersani will be hoping Prodi will be elected President Giorgio Napolitano's successor in the fourth ballot later on Friday, when a simple majority of 504 is needed rather than two-thirds of the 1,007 electors. The decision to drop Marini is seen as a major victory for the PD's rising star, Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, whose loyalists led the revolt.

Renzi, a 38-year-old who has been compared to Tony Blair and came second to Bersani in December's premier-candidate primaries, has also blasted the party leader for his handling of Italy's political impasse after the centre left came first in February's election but failed to win a working majority in the Senate Bersani, meanwhile, called on the PD to rediscover its unity after opting for Prodi.

"Now we have to regain the profile, unity and autonomy of our party and our coalition," Bersani told a meeting of the PD Upper and Lower House lawmakers and regional representatives who are taking part in the election of the next head of state. "Prodi gives value to our coalition and he speaks to our nation," said Bersani.

The decision to bank on Prodi may not suffice to heal the party's internal rifts though as his bid could also be scuppered by PD members not voting for him too. Several lawmakers close to Marini are said to be upset at him being dropped, ANSA sources said. A number of parliamentarians loyal to former premier Massimo D'Alema are irked too. They are said to be unhappy that Bersani only presented Prodi to the party as a possible alternative to Marini rather than giving a shortlist of options, including D'Alema. On a positive note for Bersani, Puglia Governor Nichi Vendola, the leader of the leftwing SEL that was allied with the PD in February's inconclusive general election, has reportedly said he is willing to back Prodi. In the first ballot, SEL voted for Constitutional lawyer Stefano Rodota', the candidate of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement. The M5S has said it will continue voting for Rodota', who was selected following an online vote after making a shortlist that also included former European Commission president Prodi.

This led to speculation that the movement led by comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo might drop their man and adopt Prodi as their candidate. But the M5S lawmakers voted to stick with Rodota' at a meeting on Friday.

Grillo also emphatically ruled out the possibility of M5S lawmakers switching support to Prodi. "No one in the M5S has ever dreamed of voting for Prodi and they won't dream of it in the future either," Grillo told a rally. "Our president is Rodota'". Rodota' is an ex-Communist who was the inaugural chairman of the first heir to Italy's once-strong Communist Party in 1990.

Rodota', also a former head of the national privacy watchdog, is seen as more divisive than Prodi for the PD, which is trying to heal the deep rifts exposed by the failure of Marini. The PdL is considering adopting Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri as its candidate after speaking to outgoing Premier Mario Monti's Civic Choice party. Cancellieri is one of the unelected technocrats that have served in Monti's emergency administration since November 2011.

The next president will have to decide whether to try to form a government from the hung parliament that emerged from February's general election or call a snap vote.