Showdown looms in Italy's long political drama

Rome:  Italy's political leaders finally face a week of reckoning after nearly two months of disarray caused by a general election that left no clear winner but showed anger against austerity and corruption in the eurozone's third largest economy.

A presidential election by parliament starting on Thursday has been preceded by behind-the-scenes talks and a bewildering array of possible candidates are being mentioned in Italian media, even as the deadlock on a new government drags on.

Centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, who narrowly won the February 24-25 elections but fell short of an overall majority in parliament, met with his arch-rival Silvio Berlusconi last week to try and hammer out a deal on the presidency.

Berlusconi told La Repubblica daily that he was willing to support a leftist candidate for the post but only on condition that the left ally with him and form a "grand coalition" government.

Any move that brings three-time prime minister Berlusconi, a scandal-tainted billionaire tycoon, to power once more would be hugely controversial among many leftists in Italy but also abroad.

It could also split the left-leaning Democratic Party.

The pressure is on for any kind of deal between the parties, with warnings from big business and the trade unions about the economic and social emergency that the recession-hit country faces.

Analysts said that the intensive negotiations on the presidential election could help end the deadlock on the creation of a new government.

"The presidential election is a key moment in this situation of crisis," Roberto D'Alimonte, a professor at Rome's Luiss University, told AFP, explaining that the type of candidate chosen and the majority behind them would be crucial.

Giovanni Guzzetta, a professor at Tor Vergata University in Rome, said a deal on a new government would depend on an agreement between Bersani's Democratic Party and Berlusconi's People of Freedom party.

"The political forces appear more oriented towards some kind of deal," he said.

The successor to President Giorgio Napolitano will be chosen by a joint session of both chambers of parliament together with regional representatives -- making for a total of 1,007 "grand electors".

Napolitano tried to forge a climate of greater understanding by setting up a group of experts from both parties to outline the main reforms needed.

The experts submitted their report on Friday, including proposals for election law reform, an overhaul of the labour market and the justice system -- all to little effect as politicians continue bickering.

The new president faces the unenviable task of trying to cobble together a government or -- in a worst-case scenario -- dissolving parliament and calling new elections within months.

Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti's cabinet, which remains in place until a new government is formed, has only interim powers and observers say it cannot deal adequately with the economic crisis.

The head of Italy's main big business federation Giorgio Squinzi, said Italy had already lost "1.0 percent of GDP" (Gross Domestic Product) since Monti formally stepped down in December 2012 after Berlusconi withdrew his support in parliament.

The leftist mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, who has ambitions to lead the centre-left, said political forces were "wasting time".

"Even the Church which is not a model of speed, managed to organise itself quickly" -- with the election of Pope Francis last month, he quipped.

Among the possible names for president mentioned in Italian media are those of former premier Giuliano Amato, ex-speaker of parliament Luciano Violante, Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri and former European commissioner Emma Bonino.

If right and left agree on a presidential candidate "then a deal would be possible also on the government", D'Alimonte said.

Failure to find a deal could mean fresh elections although D'Alimonte said this was unlikely because of the "self-preservation instinct" of lawmakers who want to hold on to their seats.
D'Alimonte said the two most likely scenarios were a minority centre-left government dependent on votes from its rivals in parliament, or a "president's government" -- a short-term cabinet that would essentially prepare for new elections within months.

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