Berlusconi and Bersani back Marini in presidential vote

But centre left split over former Senate speaker

Berlusconi and Bersani back Marini in presidential vote

(By Paul Virgo) Rome, April 18 - Lawmakers from the Upper and Lower House of parliament and representatives of Italy's regional governments on Thursday's started the first ballot to elect a new president, with the two biggest parties backing former Senate Speaker Franco Marini. Pier Luigi Bersani, the head of the biggest group in parliament, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), proposed Marini as a candidate who could win cross-party support and represent national unity. Ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi has said his centre-right People of Freedom party will vote for Marini, who is from the ex-Christian Democrat wing of the PD and a former chief of Catholic trade union CISL. "Franco Marini is a positive, serious person and this is not a defeat for us," Berlusconi told a meeting of lawmakers from the PdL, which came second in February's inconclusive general election. The regionalist Northern League, which is allied with the PdL, and outgoing Premier Mario Monti's Civic Choice party also said the would back Marini. But Bersani's decision to opt for Marini, a 80-year-old who failed to win re-election to parliament in February, risks splitting the centre-left. Puglia Governor Nichi Vendola's left-wing SEL party, which ran on the same ticket as the PD in February, has said it will vote for Stefano Rodota', the candidate of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S). Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, the rising star of the PD who came second in December's primary to select the centre-left's premier candidate, has said the 50-odd parliamentarians loyal to him will not vote for Marini. Renzi said Wednesday that voting for Marini would be like playing a "prank" on the nation, adding that Rodota' would be a better candidate, along with several other figures from the centre left and the centre right. "Can you imagine him on the phone with (US President Barack) Obama?," said Renzi, who accused Bersani of letting Berlusconi pick the candidate and admitted he had considered leaving the PD, while stressing he would not. The situation means that Marini is far from certain of gaining the two-thirds majority needed in the first ballot. Marini said Thursday that he hoped the PD would find "strong unity today" and ruled out speculation that the divisions over his candidacy would cause a split within the party. "What split are you talking about?" he told Mediaset television Thursday. The M5S, which won about a quarter of the vote in February after tapping into widespread disenchantment with the established political class, picked Rodota' after two other presidential candidates, journalist Milena Gabanelli and war-zone doctor Gino Strada, declined. Rodota', 82, is a constitutional lawyer, former head of Italy's privacy authority and former Communist and centre-left MP. He came third in an online vote of M5S members staged Monday behind Gabanelli and Strada. A majority of two thirds of the 1007 voters is needed for a candidate be elected head of state in the first three ballots, which are held in the House. After that a simple majority of over half is required. Each ballot is expected to take four or five hours. There will be two ballots per day until a successor to President Giorgio Napolitano is elected.

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