After papal election, Rome holds another conclave

A month after the Argentine pope's surprise election to lead a troubled Catholic Church, Rome hosts another conclave from Thursday -- this time to find an Italian president to end a complex political crisis.

Experts in the Vatican are being replaced by a rare breed of Italian journalists who try to decode the complexities of the "Quirinale" -- the palace in Rome where Italian presidents reside and the former home of popes and kings.

The unprecedented coincidence of a papal election with a presidential one has led observers to draw comparisons between the two banks of Rome's Tiber River -- the Vatican on one side and the seat of Italian power on the other.

Many refer to inconclusive political negotiations as "black smoke" -- the method used during a conclave to signal that no papal election has taken place.

Italians now are waiting for "white smoke" from the Italian parliament building, where lawmakers and regional officials meet to elect a president.

"White smoke (the religious one) and black smoke (the political one) are getting mixed up," leftist weekly L'Espresso said in an article comparing the "manoeuvres, pressures and rituals" of papal and political elections.

It referred to the post currently held by Giorgio Napolitano as "the pope of Italy" -- who will need a dose of divine guidance in trying to bring political parties together to form a government after inconclusive elections.

Gags apart, there are some similarities between the two procedures.

The vote is secret -- with lawmakers teering curtained booths to cast their ballots. This time around, though, it will not be 115 cardinals voting but 1,007 deputies, senators and local officials known as "grand electors".

As with the conclave, no one steps forward to declare their candidacy.

Anyone who is really interested in the post is called on to act with discretion and names only filter through after long behind-the-scenes talks.

"The presidential election is a vote with great tactical mobility, with some candidates discarded straight away and others appearing at the last minute," said philosopher Paolo Flores d'Arcais, editor the leftist journal MicroMega.

And for both the Quirinale and the Vatican, the issue is replacing a tired-out octogenarian.

Now pope emeritus Benedict XVI has just celebrated his 86th birthday and Napolitano, who is retiring at the end of his seven-year mandate at the age of 87, has said that he "gave it everything I could".

Whoever does get the post faces the unenviable task of trying to form a parliamentary majority after a February 24-25 election that led to a three-way split between the left, the right and a new anti-establishment protest party.

The left came first but failed to win an overall majority in parliament.

The key to the election is whether Pier Luigi Bersani's centre-left coalition will back a candidate who will get votes from Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right or one who will have the support of the Five Star Movement.

Another similarity with the conclave is that the election requires a two-thirds majority in the first three rounds.

Starting from the fourth round, a simple majority will suffice -- unlike the Vatican where a two-thirds majority is always needed.

Only two presidents have ever been elected in the first round -- Francesco Cossiga in 1985 and Carlo Ciampi in 1991. In 1971, Giovanni Leone was elected after 23 votes -- a long process with just two votes a day.

"Even the Church, which is not a model of speed, has managed to organise itself quickly," Florence mayor Matteo Renzi, a rising star in the centre-left, said recently, urging political forces to come to an agreement.

Pope Francis was elected by the cardinals after just two days of conclave.

Faced with major corruption and paedophilia scandals, the prelates went for an original figure: the first non-European pontiff in nearly 1,300 years.

Political analysts are asking whether the scandal-ridden Italian political world can make an equally bold choice.

L'Espresso suggested that one possibility would be to elect Italy's first female president, adding that the Church has "given a lesson to the electors... not to be afraid of a president 'from the ends of the world'".

The names most frequently cited on the rumour mill are hardly breaths of fresh air, though: former prime minister Giuliano Amato, former parliament speaker Luciano Violante, Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri.

A more original choice mentioned in recent days is Emma Bonino, a former European commissioner and veteran human rights campaigner, but her chances are seen by the "quirinalisti" as being relatively low.

The Five Star Movement, whose ex-comedian leader Beppe Grillo has defined Pope Francis as "a fantastic man", put forward the name of investigative journalist Milena Gabanelli but she turned down the offer.

The protest party is now proposing Stefano Rodota, 79, an expert in constitutional law and great enemy of rules-free liberalism.

Late Wednesday, the parties of centre-left coalition leader Bersani and right-wing former premier Berlusconi agreed on 80-year-old Franco Marini as presidential candidate.