Italy political blocs cut deal

Ex-unionist wins backing to be next president


Italy’s two main political blocs have agreed to back a former trade unionist for president ahead of voting in Parliament from Thursday, heralding a possible end to a two-month impasse on a new government.

Pier Luigi Bersani’s Democratic Party, which won elections in February by a narrow margin that failed to give it a parliamentary majority, and Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party agreed to support Franco Marini. The 80-year-old is seen as having formidable political skills.

If elected by lawmakers, as is now likely, Marini will face the unenviable task of trying to bring the bickering parties together to break a deadlock that has raised fears of instability in the eurozone’s third-largest economy.

“Franco Marini is the candidate best-placed to achieve the greatest consensus,” Bersani said after negotiations with lawmakers on Wednesday. “He is a clear-sighted and generous person.”

Berlusconi, a scandal-tainted former prime minister who remains a powerful force in Italian politics, said Marini was “a positive and serious person.”

Marini, a former Christian Democrat and ex-leader of the Catholic CISL trade union, was speaker of the Senate between 2006 and 2008. His political mentor, former minister Carlo Donat-Cattin, once said of his determined protege that he “kills with a silencer.”

But dissidents in Bersani’s party have said they will not vote for such an establishment figure. And Beppe Grillo, an ex-comedian who heads the anti-establishment Five Star Movement party, derided the choice as a “dodgy deal” between the left and the right.

While Wednesday’s agreement gives Marini a very strong chance, analysts say there could still be surprises, since the vote is secret and lawmakers sometimes don’t follow the party line.

Other names mentioned on the rumor mill have been three former prime ministers, as well as former European commissioner and veteran human rights campaigner Emma Bonino. No woman has ever been elected prime minister or president in Italy.

The voting to elect a successor to President Giorgio Napolitano from Thursday brings together both chambers of the Italian Parliament as well as regional representatives — making for a total of 1,007 people eligible to vote.

A candidate must be supported by a two-thirds majority in the first three rounds of voting or by a simple majority from the fourth vote onward. There are two votes per day, so the process could take several days.

Following the February elections, Bersani tried to woo lawmakers from the Five Star Movement by adopting many of their aims but has been rebuffed. He has so far ruled out the most obvious alternative — a grand coalition with Berlusconi — which would prove hugely controversial among leftwingers.

Berlusconi has said there should be new elections if there is no deal and polls indicate he would win, although still without the required majority.

While the presidency in Italy is a mostly ceremonial post, it takes on critical importance during times of political crisis.

Big business, trade unions and the Roman Catholic Church have issued increasingly desperate pleas to politicians to set their differences aside as the country endures its worst recession since the postwar period.

Financial markets have remained relatively muted as the deadlock has dragged on, however, although the prospect of repeat elections has been a growing concern.