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Italy's Napolitano: A veteran ex-communist operator

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Italy's Giorgio Napolitano, who at 87 was sworn in on Monday to an unprecedented second term to end a long impasse on forming a new government, is an ex-communist with formidable political skills and a reputation for neutrality.

Napolitano engineered former European commissioner Mario Monti's rise to power after premier Silvio Berlusconi's ouster in 2011 and has tried to unite bickering politicians in the current deadlock.

His seven-year term has also seen the country's gravest economic recession since the post-war period and the challenges of a rapidly changing society that has become increasingly pessimistic.

Austerity-hit Italians, however, have consistently given Napolitano a far higher approval rating in opinion polls than party politicians.

He has campaigned on issues that politicians have failed to tackle, including prison overcrowding and the lack of opportunity for young people.

Napolitano has also called in increasingly strong terms for a reform of the electoral law, widely blamed for the current political deadlock.

His re-election by lawmakers makes him the first Italian president to receive a second mandate -- a sign of the acuteness of the current crisis.

In an interview just last week, Napolitano had said he was looking forward to his retirement and had "done everything I could" for the country.

"Why won't you let me rest?" he is reported to have said on Saturday to regional governors who came to plead with him to stay on, along with the leaders of the main political forces.

But the veteran Napolitano holds the rare quality of being respected by both right and left and has managed to stay above the party political fray in recent years.

While the post of president in Italy is largely ceremonial, it takes on vital importance during times of political crisis when the president can help steer the formation of a new government.

Only the president can call early elections -- although this is not possible in the last six months of the mandate, a rule that had hampered his attempts to resolve the current crisis.

Following inconclusive elections in February, Napolitano repeatedly urged the main political forces to find common ground and warned that Italy could not afford a long political stalemate.

Born in Naples on June 29, 1925 into a family of intellectuals, Napolitano forged his political career during World War II when he took part in the resistance against Nazi and fascist troops, founding a communist group in 1942.

At the end of the war, in 1945, he became an official member of the Italian Communist Party, entered politics and was elected to parliament for the first time in 1953 after earning a law degree.

In his younger years, he had ambitions to become a theatre actor but he instead rose through the ranks of the party and became a member of its National Committee on economic issues.

Napolitano was one of the most influential leaders of the party's reformist wing, although he notoriously supported the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary in 1956 to crush a liberal revolution.

He made amends on a visit to Budapest in 2006 when he laid a wreath at the grave of Hungarian revolution leader and national hero Imre Nagy.

With the collapse of the USSR, the Italian Communist Party was officially disbanded in 1991 and the current Democratic Party is its main heir.

Napolitano was speaker of the lower house from 1992 to 1994, later becoming interior minister in Romano Prodi's first centre-left government between 1996 and 1998.

The following year he won a seat in the European Parliament, serving as a left-wing MEP until 2004.

He was elected to the presidency in 2006 -- the first former communist to hold the post -- on the third day of voting and with only the support of Prodi's centre-left.

Despite his communist past, his candidacy for president was seen as having the tacit support of the Vatican and he developed friendly relations with now pope emeritus Benedict XVI.

The Vatican's official daily, the Osservatore Romano, on Saturday heaped praise on Napolitano saying he was a "true resource" for the country.

He has been married for nearly 60 years with Clio, a former left-wing labour lawyer whom he wed in a civil ceremony and the couple have two children.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130422/italys-napolitano-veteran-ex-communist-operator