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  • Italy Welcomes New President - Sort Of
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Some people say incoming president Giorgio Napolitano is the best thing to happen to Italy since pizza, and others wouldn't even cast a vote in protest of his nomination. What do you think?

    MAY 28, 2006 - Anyone who has been following Italian politics recently knows that the country's leaders can't agree on much. Following Silvio Berlusconi's "reign," which was the longest enduring government since World War II, the Italians have returned to their old ways. After three rounds of voting that resulted in stalemate, the more than 1,000 members of the House, Senate, and representatives of Italy's 20 regions elected Giorgio Napolitano the eleventh president since democracy replaced fascism in 1945.

    Smiling for photos and giving motivational speeches, the Italian president might seem like a figurehead. But the country's constitution grants him more power than you think. The president serves as a symbol of national unity and can dissolve parliament, call elections, block legislation temporarily, and even has the formal authority to declare a state of war. He can live in the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome. Think White House -- only older, more elegant and much more European.

    Italy's head of state is supposed to be impartial. Most importantly, he gives the mandate to govern to the winner of Italy's elections. This last duty is particularly important right now because Berlusconi had been contesting the victory of his opponent Romano Prodi, Italy's new prime minister. Napolitano, a member of the Democratic Left, which is the largest party in Prodi's coalition, faced 71-year-old Gianni Letta, who was the former under secretary of state and acted as vice chair of Berlusconi's Fininvest Company.

    The fact that it took four rounds of voting to determine a winner and more than 300 of Berlusconi's supporters refrained from voting for anyone echoed the fears that this divisive government will be short lived. However, Napolitano's eventual victory gives some hope to Prodi, who can go on with the business of running the country - at least for now.

    So, who is this new president? At 80 years old, Napolitano is the oldest Italian ever elected president and is a symbol of Italy's aging leaders. Even if many world watchers are concerned about the fact that Italy lacks young leaders to carry the country into the future, Napolitano can teach us a thing or two based on the experiences he has had. After all, he has lived quite an extraordinary life.

    A southerner, he was born in Napoli on June 29, 1925. As a young man, he started a communist group and was a resister of the Nazi and Fascist regimes. He is, in fact, the first former communist to become Italy's head of state. By the 1970s, he reportedly was keen to see Italy turn toward social democracy and became known for his independent thinking.

    No stranger to politics, Napolitano served as speaker of parliament's lower house from 1992 to 1994 and interior minister for Prodi's first government from 1996 to 1998. Last October, former President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, 85, recognized Napolitano as a Life Senator for his accomplishments. He's also an author having published the books Europa Politica (2003) and Dal Pci al socialismo europeo, autobiografia politica (2005).

    Those hyphenated Italians in countries like Canada, the United States and Australia, who never learned the Italian language, can take comfort in the fact that the new president is fluent in English. But, for the sake of the current Italian government, he'll have to be fluent in diplomacy, too.


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