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Prodi Suffers Senate Setback
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Prime minister-in-waiting Romano Prodi failed early Saturday to impose his candidate for speaker of Italy's upper house following three secret ballots that laid bare the fragility of his parliamentary majority.

A fourth and final vote will be held on Saturday morning, where the margin needed to clinch victory will be lowered, which should open the way for Prodi's ally Franco Marini to finally clinch the prestigious post in the upper house Senate.

But the fact that he was unable to secure an absolute majority in three initial votes, which at times verged on the farcical, revealed divisions in center-left ranks and suggested Prodi will struggle to get legislation through parliament.

Supporters of outgoing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi watched the center-left's problems with glee and said Prodi should not be given the go-ahead to form a government because he could not guarantee political stability.

Prodi's allies struggled to hide their gloom over the setback in the Senate, where at least one center-left parliamentarian apparently failed to back Marini.

"It obviously means that someone is playing a parallel game. At this point it is legitimate to suspect that someone in the center-left is underestimating what is going on," said Pierluigi Castagnetti, a leader of the moderate Daisy Party.

Prodi won the April 9, 10 general election by the smallest margin in modern Italian history, giving his broad coalition, which spans hardcore communists to Roman Catholic centrists, just a two-seat majority in the 322-seat Senate.

The showdown for the Senate speaker pitted former union leader Marini against the 87-year-old elder statesman Giulio Andreotti, a seven-times prime minister backed by Berlusconi.

Marini failed to win the necessary absolute majority in the first secret vote on Friday morning by five ballots.

In the second vote, a preliminary count showed he had won by one ballot, but this result was contested by the center-right which complained that Marini's first name was given as Francesco on two of the hand-written ballots, making them void.

After lengthy deliberations, acting Senate Speaker Oscar Luigi Scalfaro annulled the vote and demanded it be taken again. But Marini once more fell just short, this time by one vote.

Misspellings appeared in all three votes, but in the country which gave the world Machiavelli, few people thought the errors were genuine. Rather they were seen as veiled warnings that support from some senators could not be taken for granted.

"Ballots with the name Francesco Marini offered a clear signal ... a signal from senators bargaining for their votes," said outgoing Justice Minister Roberto Castelli.

Prodi's position in the lower house is much stronger, thanks to a new electoral system which provided the general election victor with a winner's bonus of more than 60 seats.

But even there, Prodi experienced problems on Friday, with almost 80 center-left parliamentarians failing to vote for the bloc's official candidate for lower house speaker, veteran communist Fausto Bertinotti, in two opening ballots.

Bertinotti was expected to win in final voting on Saturday.

Once the two speakers have been picked, attention will switch to Prodi's plans to form a government, which have been held up by a constitutional logjam.

Under the constitution, the head of state appoints a new prime minister, but the situation is complicated this year because President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi's mandate expires in May and he wants his successor to do the honors.

(Chinadaily.com via agencies April 29, 2006)

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