Blocked by Berlusconi, Italy’s Prodi Quits Presidential Race

Conservatives accuse the left of breaking a pact to nominate a centrist president.

Former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi speaks at a conference in Brussels, April 9
Former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi speaks at a conference in Brussels, April 9 (European Commission)

Italy’s former prime minister Romano Prodi pulled out of a presidential election after conservative lawmakers voted against him on Friday, deepening the political crisis in a country that is coping with the highest debt burden in the eurozone after Greece and in desperate need of economic and fiscal reform.

The right-wing parties led by former premier Silvio Berlusconi, who won 29 percent of the votes in the last election, accused the social democrat leader Pier Luigi Bersani of breaking his promise to put forward a candidate that they could accept. Prodi, who was also a European Commission president, is Berlusconi’s nemesis.

On Thursday, Bersani had nominated former Senate speaker Franco Marini who did get the support of conservative lawmakers but nevertheless fell short of the required two-thirds majority because some of his own members joined the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in backing leftist Stefano Rodotà instead.

Ahead of the first voting round, Florence mayor Matteo Renzi, who failed to beat Bersani in a primary election last year, said left-wing parliamentarians would “do a disservice to the country” if they elected Marini. He described the octogenarian former Christian Democrat as a “candidate from the last century” who lacked international stature.

In opposing Bersani’s choice, Renzi might be positioning himself for another leadership bid. He said earlier this month that he would welcome a return to the polls. “Every day we wait is a day wasted for Italy,” he wrote on his Facebook page. An SWG survey suggests that nearly twice as many Italians support him for the prime ministership as Bersani.

There cannot be new elections, however, before a successor to incumbent president Giorgio Napolitano is found. His term expires next month.

The Italian president has a mostly ceremonial function but can also dissolve parliament, triggering elections. That may be necessary after elections in February gave neither party a clear mandate. Bersani’s Democratic Party won a majority of the seats in the lower chamber of parliament but not the Senate where Berlusconi’s Il Popolo della Libertà and its Lega Nord ally hold almost as many seats.

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement could give Bersani a majority in the upper chamber but it has ruled out joining any government. Berlusconi and part of the Democratic Party, including Renzi, could support a “grand coalition” between the country’s largest left- and right-wing parties. Bersani rejects such an alliance with the former prime minister although he might seek his support for a minority cabinet to stave off reelections.

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