Italy parliament fails again to tap president

ROME (AP) — Italy’s polarized Parliament failed in a second day of balloting Friday to elect a president, as the high-profile candidacy of ex-Premier Romano Prodi fell far short of the votes needed. The rebuff deepened the political paralysis gripping the eurozone’s third-largest economy.

Prodi, the only politician to defeat media mogul Silvio Berlusconi for the premier’s office, was the center-left latest choice to be Italy’s next head of state, replacing President Giorgio Napolitano, whose 7-year term expires next month.

Berlusconi bitterly opposed the bid to tap Prodi, a onetime arch-rival who had defeated him twice for the premiership. The president’s duties include tapping someone to try to form Italy’s next government and end two months of political gridlock. Berlusconi ordered his forces to boycott the vote Friday afternoon, and they did.

In the latest fourth round of balloting, Prodi garnered 395 votes, far short of the 504 simple majority needed. In theory, it should have been easier for Parliament to elect a president, because the previous three rounds of voting had required a two-thirds majority.

But center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, who was frustrated in forming a government following inconclusive nationwide elections in February, was humiliated again. He failed to draw enough support outside his bloc to rally behind the widely-respected Prodi, a former European Union commission president.

A fifth round of voting was scheduled for Saturday.

“I think Prodi’s candidacy is finished,” said Matteo Renzi, an upstart rival of Bersani in his Democratic Party. Speaking to reporters in Florence, where he is mayor, Renzi blamed Prodi’s defeat in the secret vote on defectors in their bickering party.

Prodi’s candidacy “was the best profile we can offer the country,” said Francesco Boccia, a Democratic Party leader. But after the stinging defeat in Parliament, he said party leaders would huddle together Friday night to “look each other in the eye” and come up with a new strategy, and likely a new candidate.

One possibility touted by commentators was Massimo D’Alema, an ex-premier and former leader of the now defunct Italian Communist Party, which eventually morphed into the Democratic Party. Berlusconi’s bloc is generally considered open to him.

The push for Prodi by the center-left, which controls the Chamber of Deputies, took shape after a candidate backed by both the left and the right failed to win in two rounds of voting a day earlier.

But the Prodi candidacy seemed to only further polarize lawmakers.

One right-wing lawmaker, Alessandra Mussolini, sported a protest T-shirt as the fourth round of voting began. “The devil wears Prodi,” read the shirt’s back, which the granddaughter of late dictator Benito Mussolini showed off to photographers in the Chamber of Deputies. The slogan riffed on a popular film about the fashion world.

The Italian president has no political role, but retains powers to dissolve Parliament, call new elections and tap a candidate to form a new government — thus playing a critical role in resolving Italy’s political crisis. Caught in political gridlock since elections two months ago, Italy is being governed by caretaker Premier Mario Monti.

Voters, fed up with Monti’s austerity program of higher taxes and spending cuts and stubborn unemployment, rejected his bid in February elections to stay in office.

Monti’s centrists were pushing Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri, who received several dozen votes Friday, to be Italy’s president. A statement from his office described her as a “personality who unites, not divides.” A veteran Interior Ministry civil servant, Cancellieri is considered apolitical.

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