* Politicians begged reluctant Napolitano
* Worse crisis for decades solved by president
* Future uncertain, how long will president serve?
By Barry Moody and Steve Scherer
ROME, May 7 (Reuters) - On Saturday April 20, the leaders of
Italy's two biggest political forces climbed the Quirinal,
highest of Rome's seven ancient hills, and begged President
Giorgio Napolitano to stay for a second term.
Pier Luigi Bersani and Silvio Berlusconi were followed into
the presidential palace by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti,
Northern League boss Roberto Maroni and finally the governors of
Italy's regions, in scenes that resembled schoolboys visiting
the headmaster's office.
The fact that Italy's leading politicians had to implore an
extremely reluctant 87-year-old grandfather to be the first
president in Italian history to serve a second term is a measure
of the depth of the most turbulent and intractable crisis seen
for decades, even in a country synonymous with instability.
Since an election in February that left no group with enough
support to govern alone, one political disaster had followed
another like a motorway pile-up, culminating in the failure of
1007 "grand electors" from parliament and the regions to elect a
new president after four attempts.
The political drama had implications far beyond Italy. The
euro zone's third biggest economy had once before narrowly
avoided being sucked into the region's financial crisis.
Political gridlock brought renewed danger.
The group's pleas flew in the face of Napolitano's repeated
and fierce rejection of the idea, going back months. With his
88th birthday two months away, the former communist was looking
forward to retirement, playing with his two grandchildren and
taking a holiday on the island of Capri with his wife Clio.
Napolitano was so sure of leaving that removal men had
already taken away most of his personal effects. Sources with
knowledge of the events inside the former papal palace on the
Quirinal hill said his office was so bare that there were not
even notebooks available when he received the delegations.
He had told his aides the night before that he expected to
hand over the presidency within days, the sources said.
The presidential election was key to ending the two-month
deadlock and installing Italy's 64th post-war government with
some hope of passing reforms vital to counter a deep recession,
but the politicians were incapable of finding a way out of the
Napolitano eventually agreed to stand again, was
overwhelmingly elected and has installed a right-left grand
coalition under centre-left politician Enrico Letta, bringing
the crisis to an end, for now.
While fragile, the government is given a reasonable chance
of lasting for a while at least, thanks mostly to the
president's powerful protection, and his threat to resign
immediately if the politicians go back to playing games.
BRINK OF DISASTER
But before he conceded out of what close associates say was
an overwhelming sense of duty and patriotism, Italy had come to
the brink of disaster.
"Napolitano has been decisive. No other president would have
had enough authority to impose a government. If it had not been
for him we would now be in a major constitutional crisis," said
political science Professor Gianfranco Pasquino from Bologna's
Johns Hopkins University.
Napolitano's phone started ringing on the night of Friday
April 19, shortly after a major rebellion in Bersani's
centre-left Democratic Party which sank his second candidate for
president, former premier Romano Prodi, despite a unanimous
party vote in a Rome theatre only that morning to support him.
Bersani had the most electors after beating Berlusconi's
centre-right by a whisker in the February election but he had
lost control of the party, which was close to collapse.
Bersani resigned that night, after railing against around
100 "traitors" who voted against Prodi, and was the first to
make the pilgrimage to Napolitano.
Sources with knowledge of the meeting say Napolitano's
determination not to remain was weakened by the sorry sight of
the broken Bersani. He was finally convinced by the pleas of the
He was also very worried that public anger against the
politicians, fuelled by the diatribes of populist 5-Star
Movement leader Beppe Grillo, could become violent.
Napolitano had what one source described as an "animated"
lunch with his wife and 43-year-old son Giulio, and finally at 3
p.m. agreed to stay on. But the drama was far from over.
Napolitano went to parliament for his inauguration on the
Monday morning, eschewing the normal pomp reserved for the
occasion. He angrily excoriated the chastened politicians,
accusing them among other charges of irresponsibility,
exploitation and sterile political battles.
He said their failure despite his repeated urgings last year
to repeal a flawed electoral law that was largely responsible
for the poll result was "unforgivable."
Then, unveiling his biggest weapon, he told them he would
not hesitate to resign, "if I find myself again confronted by
the kind of deafness with which I have collided in the past."
The reaction of the parliamentarians was little short of
surreal. With the exception of Bersani, who held his head in his
hands, the rest of the audience responded to their punishment
with enthusiastic applause.
The astonishing scene was caricatured in La Stampa newspaper
by columnist Massimo Gramellini who said the politicians were
like motorists carrying a traffic policeman in triumph on their
shoulders after he had given them a sheaf of parking fines.
One political official said Napolitano's threat to resign
was not an empty one. "His determination is very strong ...if
the politicians try to mock him with their games," he said.
It was not long before Napolitano had to use this weapon.
Two days after his own inauguration, he nominated Letta as
prime minister, but coalition horse trading with Berlusconi ran
into trouble in a dispute over the position of economy minister.
Berlusconi wanted the job to go to his close ally, Renato
Brunetta, a centre-right hardliner, but that was opposed by
Letta's centre-left. Political sources said Napolitano picked up
the phone and called Berlusconi. One source says he threatened
to resign if the dispute prevented a government being formed.
Berlusconi conceded, allowing the job to go to Bank of Italy
director general Fabrizio Saccomanni.
High on Letta's priorities are constitutional changes to fix
the skewed electoral law, which grants a giant winner's premium
in the lower house of parliament even if the margin is tiny. It
will be a long process and before it happens Napolitano has
powerful leverage with his threat to resign or call a new poll.
So as in November 2011, when Napolitano rescued Italy from a
perilous debt crisis by replacing the discredited Berlusconi
with technocrat Mario Monti, Italy's fate once again depends on
the man affectionately known as "King George."
But with the future deeply uncertain as far as the eye can
see, Italians are wondering whether he will really be forced to
stay for a full seven year term, by which time he will be 94, in
order to keep the euro zone's third-largest economy on track.