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Ex-communist elder statesman wins Italy presidency

Written by: Staff

ROME, May 10 (Reuters) Giorgio Napolitano, Italy's first former communist to be elected president, is a seasoned politician who faces the difficult job of trying to unite the nation after its most divisive election campaign in decades.

The 80-year-old former speaker of the house narrowly won election on Wednesday, with fierce opposition from the centre right underscoring deep political divisions already laid bare during last month's bitter general election.

Napolitano emerged as the centre left's candidate because his experience and tact command the respect of conservative opponents despite his left-wing credentials.

He was put forward by incoming Prime Minister Romano Prodi as a compromise candidate after the centre right had rejected Prodi's first choice, former Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema.

As an elder statesman and life senator, the soft spoken Napolitano was seen as less divisive than D'Alema even though they are both from the Democrats of the Left (DS), the heir of what was once the largest communist party in the West.

''He is a man of the institutions, able to ensure that the president will represent everyone,'' said Francesco Rutelli, leader of the centrist Daisy party.

But outgoing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi refused to back him, vowing never to accept the ''indecent proposal'' of a former communist becoming president for the first time in Italy's history.

''This is not the will of the people, but we wish him well and good work,'' Berlusconi said after Napolitano won 543 votes from the 1,009 eligible electors in parliament.

One of Berlusconi's aides, Sandro Bondi, called Napolitano ''a lesser evil'' compared to the better-known D'Alema.

ANTI-FASCIST A tall, bespectacled, bald political veteran, Napolitano will have the arduous task of following in the footsteps of the hugely popular Carlo Azeglio Ciampi in a post that is supposed to embody national unity.

With his powers to appoint the prime minister, dissolve parliament and send legislation back to lawmakers if he deems it is unconstitutional or not funded, the new president will play an important role as Prodi tries to govern with a tiny majority.

One of the last living Italian politicians to have resisted fascism, Napolitano was 20 years old when World War Two ended in 1945. He joined the Italian Communist Party the same year and was elected to parliament for the first time in 1953.

He was always on the moderate wing of his party and in almost half a century in parliament he earned the respect of his opponents but often angered his more hard-line colleagues.

Considered an expert in foreign policy, he frequently clashed with his party over his view that Italy should be firmly allied with the United States.

''We must resist the temptation of once again turning America into the traditional bogeyman of the left,'' he said to a chorus of jeers and hisses at a party congress in 1991, defending the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in the first Gulf War.

At a lunch with reporters last week, Napolitano said Italy must strengthen its ties with Europe and poured scorn on a proposal by the right-wing Northern League party to hold a referendum on pulling Italy out of the euro currency.

''A look at the constitution would have shown they can never have this kind of referendum,'' he said.

His reputation as a bridge over the political divide was reinforced in 1994 when Berlusconi famously left his chair in parliament to shake Napolitano's hand after a speech advocating a constructive dialogue between the government and opposition.

He was made lower house speaker from 1992 to 1994 when he won plaudits for his level-headed, unbiased leadership, and became the first former communist to be named interior minister when Prodi gave him the job in his first government in 1996.

Between 1999 and 2004 he was a Socialist member of the European parliament, and in 2005 he was made an Italian life senator for his services to the state.


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