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Italy's New Parliaments Meets

Italy's new parliament met for the first time Friday to elect the speakers of the upper and lower house. The vote in the Senate was expected to be a first test on the center-left's ability to remain united.

The new parliament convened for the first time since the general elections of April 9 and 10, which Romano Prodi's center-left coalition won by a narrow margin.

Both chambers opened with a minute of silence to honor the three Italian soldiers who died in Thursday's bombing in Iraq.

Voting then began to elect the speakers of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Several rounds of balloting are expected with the result possibly not known until Saturday.

In the lower house, the center-left should have no troubles. It holds a solid majority and its candidate, Communist leader Fausto Bertinotti, is expected to be elected. But the vote in the upper house will test of the center-left coalition's ability to stay united.

The center-left coalition candidate for speaker of the Senate is Franco Marini, 73, a centrist who is a former labor leader. The center-left has the numbers to get him through but its margin is very tight.

Speaking before the vote, Marini said he did not think he would be the winner in the first ballot but expressed optimism.

He said his alliance is compact adding that it's difficult for him to see uncertainties in his bloc.

But Marini is up against Giulio Andreotti, 87, who has been prime minister of Italy seven times. Andreotti is the nominee of the center-right coalition. There is the danger that lawmakers in the Senate could defect to the elder statesman in the secret ballot.

Andreotti said he accepted to be the candidate hoping that there will be some defections. He said he hoped he would be given the opportunity to contribute to make the political machine work better because at the moment it is very divided.

Analysts say if Marini fails to win the vote it will signal that Prodi's tiny majority was not enough to guarantee political peace. They say it may also be a precursor to chronic instability that would open the way for new elections.

If the center-left candidate wins, the Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi may decide to appoint Prodi prime minister within days, rather than wait, as he originally planned, for the election of his successor, who would in turn appoint Prodi.