Last updated: April 20, 2013 12:21 am

Italy’s centre-left fails in presidential vote

Hopes that Italy would take an important step towards breaking nearly two months of political deadlock were dashed on Friday when the centre-left Democrats failed by a large margin to secure the election of former prime minister Romano Prodi as the next head of state.

Pierluigi Bersani on Friday night announced he would resign as Democratic party leader, leaving Italy’s fractured left facing its biggest crisis since the dissolution of the Communist party in 1991. Rosi Bindi, party president, had already announced she was stepping down.

Protests during the vote by supporters of Silvio Berlusconi, implacably opposed to Mr Prodi’s candidacy, reflected bitter divisions that have blocked the formation of a new government since inconclusive general elections in late February resulted in a hung parliament.

Giorgio Napolitano’s seven-year term as president expires in mid-May. Until his successor is in place, with the authority to dissolve parliament or mediate a compromise solution, there appears little chance of ending the impasse and implementing reforms needed to lift the eurozone’s third-largest economy out of its longest postwar recession.

Mr Prodi, the former European Commission president who oversaw the birth of the euro and now a UN envoy for the Sahel, fell 109 votes short of the absolute majority of 504 parliamentarians needed to win.

The voting again revealed the rifts within the centre-left, with some 100 of its delegates voting against Mr Prodi. Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition boycotted the ballot, with delegates rallying in the piazza outside to celebrate his defeat.

“The Democratic party can self-destruct but it should not be allowed to destroy the country,” commented Maurizio Gasparri, a centre-right politician, as Mr Berlusconi’s supporters welcomed what they called the “death” of their rival.

Voting was interrupted briefly amid furore as Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the wartime dictator and an ally of Mr Berlusconi, walked through the chamber with “The devil wears Prodi” painted on her shirt.

The outcome was a heavy blow to Mr Bersani, who had nominated Mr Prodi after his first choice candidate – former Christian Democrat Franco Marini – had been sunk by a large-scale internal party revolt in the first round on Thursday.

Francesco Boccia, a leading Democrat, admitted that his party had “haemorrhaged” votes. The party’s stunned leaders were holding crisis talks on Friday night.

Parliament is to reconvene on Saturday. The longest process to choose a head of state in Italy’s postwar history as a republic was in 1971, when it took 23 rounds to elect Giovanni Leone.

Mr Berlusconi, 76, who was defeated by Mr Prodi in two parliamentary elections, was furious that the Democrats had reneged on what he said was a pledge to agree a joint candidate. Mr Bersani and Mr Berlusconi had reached a deal on Mr Marini’s candidacy on Wednesday.

However, this was shot down by a centre-left revolt led by Matteo Renzi, the reformist mayor of Florence, and Nichi Vendola, leader of an allied leftwing party. Mr Renzi, speaking in Florence, said Mr Prodi’s candidacy was over.

“We are here to block the left. We will defend our constitution, our freedom and our democracy,” Mr Berlusconi told his People of Liberty delegates before their walkout.

In the highly fragmented parliament resulting from the February elections, the small centrist Civic Choice party led by caretaker prime minister Mario Monti voted for interior minister Anna Maria Cancellieri as head of state. Delegates of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, the third largest party riding a wave of public anger at the political elite, voted for Stefano Rodota, a 79-year-old leftwing jurist.

The Democrats, whose internal fractures threaten the party’s collapse, face dwindling options. They could choose to press ahead with Mr Prodi’s candidacy, hoping to strike a deal with some centrists or the Five Star Movement whose fiery comic activist leader, Beppe Grillo, had derided the Democratic leader as a “dead man talking”.

Opinion polls suggest Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right would win fresh elections, depending on whether Mr Renzi might succeed in reuniting the Democrats. But the risk of another hung parliament is high.

Meanwhile financial markets appear unconcerned. Italy’s borrowing costs on its €2 trillion of public debt have fallen back to pre-election levels, buoyed by the prospect of fresh liquidity flowing from Japan and elsewhere.

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