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Italian lawmakers again fail to elect president

Written by: Staff

ROME, May 9 (Reuters) Italy's lawmakers again failed to elect a new head of state today as the centre-right opposition refused to back the incoming government's preferred candidate, a former communist.

No candidate obtained the required two-thirds majority in a fresh vote today and outgoing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said there currently was ''no room for agreement'' with the centre left.

Barring any last-minute deal, the third ballot tonight was also almost certain to be inconclusive.

The developments meant Romano Prodi's centre left would have to decide whether to push its candidate through, starting with tomorrow's fourth ballot -- when the majority needed to elect is drastically reduced -- or continue to seek a compromise.

The parliamentary election for Italy's 11th postwar head of state is the first major test for Prodi since he narrowly won last month's general election.

It has painfully underscored the difficulty he will have in pushing through his policy agenda with a wafer-thin parliamentary majority.

The post of president is largely ceremonial but under the constitution the head of state names the prime minister and dissolves parliament -- prerogatives which could be crucial for Prodi as he prepares to form a government.

Prodi cannot take office until the new president gives him a mandate.

The centre left wants the post to be given to Giorgio Napolitano, an 80-year-old senator-for-life of the Democrats of the Left, Italy's former communist party.

The two-third majority needed to elect the president in the first three ballots means a successful vote is impossible unless the two blocs agree on a compromise candidate.

In the first of today's two voting rounds, most ballots were left blank, as frantic negotiations continued behind hte scenes.

NO DEAL, SAYS BERLUSCONI Napolitano had appeared to be inching closer to becoming thefirst ex-communist appointed head of state after two key parties in Berlusconi's bloc signalled they were ready to back him.

But Berlusconi himself, who has said any leftwing candidate would be ''indecent'', dismissed divisions within his bloc and ruled out a deal with the centre left, at least for today.

''There is no room for an agreement ... I spoke with the lawmakers of the political forces in our coalition and they are all aligned on the position that our voters would not understand (if we backed Napolitano),'' Berlusconi said.

Both sides said they would again cast blank ballots in the third voting round tonight as negotiations continued. That means that ballot is also likely to end in deadlock.

Prodi's bloc must now decide whether to push ahead with its candidate from the fourth round of voting tomorrow, when a simple majority of 505 votes will be enough.

Prodi is keen to seek a compromise with the centre right and avoid a head-on confrontation which would make it harder for him to push through his policies in the future.

Napolitano, a quiet-spoken elder statesman, was put forward only after Berlusconi ruled out backing the higher-profile but divisive Massimo D'Alema, chairman of the Democrats of the Left. Both are former members of the Communist Party.

Reuters OM DB1924

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