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>> The New York Times

As Italy Picks a President, Some Say It’s Time to Choose a Woman

The New York Times - April 18, 2013

by Elisabetta Povoledo

Italian lawmakers begin voting on Thursday for a successor to President Giorgio Napolitano amid growing debate about electing a woman for the first time in this male-dominated society, and even seemingly strong popular support for the idea.

There is an even stronger consensus, however, that none of this is likely to matter to lawmakers. They appear poised to treat the presidential election — like almost everything else in Italy’s tempestuous political climate — as a bargaining chip in the negotiations to form a government nearly eight weeks after inconclusive national elections.

The Italian presidency is a mostly institutional position, though it comes with important constitutional powers to send legislation back to Parliament, appoint governments, dissolve Parliament and call elections. The president is also expected to be a guarantor of political unity.

In the first three rounds of voting, a two-thirds majority is required among the 1,007 grand electors, 949 members of Parliament along with regional representatives. From the fourth vote on, a simple majority is all that will be needed to choose a successor to Mr. Napolitano, whose seven-year term ends May 15.

But finding a figure with broad appeal is proving difficult. In frenetic meetings on Wednesday, political leaders were still wrangling over a mutually agreeable candidate to represent the broadest possible majority of citizens.

The apparent front-runner hours before the vote was Franco Marini, a former president of the Senate and onetime union leader proposed by the center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani. Mr. Marini appeared to be acceptable to the center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi, and centrist parties loyal to the caretaker prime minister, Mario Monti.

But his nomination was rejected outright by one reformist faction of the center-left led by the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, who is vying for leadership of the party on a platform for change. Mr. Marini’s candidacy was also criticized by center-left voters who reject any potential alliance with Mr. Berlusconi.

Other top-ranked candidates include two former prime ministers, Giuliano Amato and Romano Prodi, though both men have their critics, as does another possible choice, Massimo D’Alema, who led the Democratic Party in one of its post-Communist incarnations.

But some support among lawmakers has emerged for Emma Bonino of the small Radical Party, a former European commissioner who first lobbied to become president in 1999, with the slogan that she was “the right man” for the job.

Other women have emerged as potential candidates, including the departing interior minister, Anna Maria Cancellieri, and Milena Gabanelli, who hosts Italy’s most prestigious investigative television news program. On Tuesday, thousands of registered voters with the upstart Five Star Movement selected Ms. Gabanelli as their candidate for president, but she declined the next day.

Several women in Mr. Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party have said they would be pleased if Ms. Bonino were elected, though male counterparts in the party blithely dismissed the idea.

Michela Marzano, a lawmaker with the Democratic Party, said that despite the presence of qualified candidates, “it’s clear that other reasoning is prevailing in the decision instead of questions of gender.” Italy, she said, “still has to mature.”

Italy has lagged far behind its European Union counterparts in achieving equality for women. According to the 2012 World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, Italy ranks 80th out of 135 countries, slipping six positions in two years.

Women are still expected to be the principal caregivers in the family. The employment rate for women — about 46 percent in 2012 — was the fourth lowest among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In the south, only 30 percent of women are employed. Just 6 percent of the board members of the country’s largest listed companies are women, compared with 22 percent in France.

Last month, Mr. Napolitano was widely criticized when he did not include a woman among the 10 experts he picked to form two commissions assigned to make proposals on constitutional and economic reforms.

While women hold a record 31 percent of the seats in Parliament, the chances of a woman’s taking up residence in the Quirinal, as the presidential palace is called, seem remote.

“There may be women in Parliament, but they haven’t created transversal coalitions — they don’t get together to propose ideas,” said Cristina Sivieri Tagliabue, a journalist and a founder of Pari o Dispare, an equal rights organization. “Italy may not be ready” for a woman as president, she said, “because the real power, the lobbies, remain in the hands of men.”

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