Rome

Bersani says ready to meet Berlusconi

Says could 'step aside', PdL rebuffs overture

Bersani says ready to meet Berlusconi

(By Denis Greenan). Rome, April 2 - Centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani said Tuesday he would meet centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi in an effort to solve Italy's post-election stalemate as 10 'wise men' named by President Giorgio Napolitano got to work on trying to narrow the policy differences between parties. Bersani, the head of the biggest parliamentary coalition, said he was prepared to meet Berlusconi, who leads the second-biggest, in an "institutional" setting, while reiterating he rejected the ex-premier's 'grand coalition' proposal. The PD leader, who held week-long and eventually fruitless government-formation talks last week, also said he was willing to step aside if it made a new government more likely. "If I am an obstacle, I will step aside, because Italy must come first", Bersani told a news conference. This was taken as voicing willingness to formally give up the exploratory mandate Napolitano handed him on March 25, but some observers also took it as a hint he might be willing to make way for a new PD leader. The PD is holding its annual congress in October where Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, beaten by Bersani in November primaries, is expected by many to take over the reins of the party. Polls say the younger, more media-savvy and more centrist Renzi, who has been likened to Tony Blair, would attract more voters than the more sober and tradition-bound Bersani. Renzi might also be more prepared to work with Berlusconi, some observers think. In the meantime, however, Bersani's overture to the media magnate and three-time premier received a swift rebuttal from the secretary of Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party, Angelino Alfano. The PdL secretary said there was "little room" for dialogue because of Bersani's refusal to team up with the PdL. Alfano reiterated Berlusconi's claim that, after electing parliamentary speakers from the centre left, the PD also aims to get another "left-wing" president after former Communist Napolitano steps down in mid-May. Voting for a new president is set to start in less than two weeks and no consensus candidate has emerged. "If Bersani wants to occupy all the institutions, there is no space for dialogue," Alfano said. Napolitano named the 10 'wise men' - four for institutional reform and six for growth, budget and tax policies - to tackle the political deadlock that has gripped Italy since last month's inconclusive general election. He asked the experts to draft a programme of reforms for a government that would be able to win cross-party backing, after conceding on Saturday that the three groups were "frozen between irreconcilable stances". But the PD was cool about the initiative while the PdL voiced open hostility, calling for a grand coalition or else a new snap vote. Meanwhile, Beppe Grillo, the leader of the 5-Star Movement (M5S) that holds the balance of power in parliament after capturing a huge protest vote last month, blasted the experts as "unreal negotiators" and "nurses of democracy". Constitutional Court President Valerio Onida, the leader of the group that will tackle electoral and other reforms, shot back that they should rather be called "baby-sitters" since the parliament was "in its infancy".

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