Italy's octogenarian president may be called to rescue again


* Chooses leaders who inspire confidence internationally

* May be called on to muster another government

* Says he wants to avoid snap election

By Steve Scherer

ROME, Sept 30 (Reuters) - Italy's 88-year-old president,Giorgio Napolitano, is an unlikely hero, but this week marks thethird time in two years that he may be called to the country'srescue.

Just five months into his unprecedented second term aspresident, Napolitano is facing a potential political crisis inthe euro zone's third-biggest economy that has already roiledfinancial markets.

Centre-right leader Berlusconi ordered his five ministersout of Prime Minister Enrico Letta's fragile right-leftcoalition government on Saturday, and parliamentary votes thatcould usher in a full-blown crisis are expected on Wednesday.

For the moment, Letta is holding onto his job and fractureswithin Berlusconi's party appear to give hope that hisgovernment could survive the confidence votes.

The 77-year-old Berlusconi, who has dominated Italianpolitics for two decades, is fighting for his political survivalafter a tax fraud conviction last month.

Berlusconi is pushing for an election just seven monthsafter February's inconclusive national vote after the ruling,which will exclude him from parliament and severely limit hisability to lead his Forza Italia party.

Italian presidents have been little more than ceremonialfigures in the past, ribbon-cutters and authors of patrioticspeeches, but some argue Napolitano has done more to save thecountry from financial ruin than anyone else.

"He's Italy's financial saviour because he has chosen andworked with those who have the confidence of the internationalmarkets," said James Walston, a political analyst at theAmerican University in Rome.

The irony is that Napolitano once did not even believe inthe free-market economy. If Italy's 88-year-old hero wore acape, it would be red.

Napolitano joined the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1945,before the official end of the war, and first entered parliamentin 1953.

In 1978, he was the first high-ranking leader of a communistparty to visit the United States, a trip that earned theNaples-born apparatchik the nickname "o Americano" for hisdiplomatic role as the party's North Atlantic ambassador.

After the U.S. involvement in the bombing of Libya in 2011,President Barack Obama called Napolitano, not then-PrimeMinister Berlusconi, to thank him for Italy's support for theoperation because the premier had opposed aiding the rebellionagainst his personal friend, Muammar Gaddafi.

Recently the powerful president has been affectionatelyreferred to as "King George" and he has repeatedly lambastedtoday's politicians for lacking mutual respect for politicalrivals - to no avail.


One of the few powers the president has is to choose apotential government leader after an election or when there is acrisis. The other is to dissolve parliament and induceelections.

If Letta's government does collapse, Napolitano will firsthave to see if parliament is capable of supporting anotheradministration, with Letta or another at its head. If he fails, he will have to dissolve parliament, which he has madeabundantly clear he would like to avoid.

When Italy was mired in the euro zone debt storm two yearsago, it was Napolitano who pushed the discredited Berlusconi tostep down and make way for Mario Monti, a former Europeancommissioner held in high regard in capitals across the region.

After the February vote gave no single force in parliamentenough votes to govern and markets again became uneasy,Napolitano reluctantly yielded to the pleas from the right andleft to accept a second mandate.

Then he picked Letta, a 47-year-old moderate well known byinvestors and European leaders, as the man to lead the awkwardcoalition of former rivals in the 64th Italian government sinceWorld War Two.

At a conference commemorating a leading Italian economistand friend of the president's who died earlier this year,Napolitano reminisced about the way Italian politics, thoughalways unstable, used to be.

"The differences and the conflicts over ideas between themajority and the opposition did not cause confusion about thenotion of civil debate and decorum," he said.

Reflecting on growing old "and noticing the vacuum left bythose dear people who have, one by one, passed on," thepresident broke into tears.

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