By Eric J. Lyman
ROME, April 16 (Xinhua) -- Former Italian prime minister and European Commission President Romano Prodi ran into his first obstacle in the road becoming Italy's next president, when a makeshift primary conducted by the forces populist activist Beppe Grillo selected investigative journalist Milena Gabanelli for the job.
Prodi, who was Italy's prime minister from 1996 to 1998 and from 2006 to 2008 and president of the European Commission from 1999 to 2004, is by far the best known and most experienced name in a field of candidates that also includes Nobel Prize winning writer Dario Fo, wine maker Angelo Gaja, three judges, a former war surgeon, and two career politicians.
The Italian press has speculated that the selection of a respected figure like Prodi would help reinforce Italy's image abroad, where the protracted political crisis is already increasing investor jitters about the Italian economy and the health of the European Union.
But to some critics, Prodi's long ties to the European Union remind many of the background of current caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti, a former European Commissioner, whose pro-EU policies proved unpopular. And Grillo, who won about 1 out of 4 votes cast in Italy's Feb. 24-25 election running on a populist platform, said he would not support a candidate with such long ties to the political establishment.
"Grillo's movement has evolved to hold the balance of power in Italy, but this will be a real test for the movement's power," said Roma Tre University political scientist Carlo Luis Bianchi.
The battle to pick Italy's next president is now the main focus point of a political crisis now entering its eighth week. Grillo, center-left candidate Pier Luigi Bersani, and three-time premiere and billionaire tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, all won large blocs of votes, though none of them got enough seats in the Senate to form a working majority.
Since then, negotiations to broker a compromise have failed, and Napolitano -- whose term as president concludes May 15 -- in recent days admitted that the formation of a new government will be left in the hands of his successor.
That raises the stakes on the question of who the successor will be. Prodi remains the favorite for international investors worried that too populist a government in Italy could lead the country back to the edge of the political crisis, where it was at the end of 2011, when Berlusconi resigned.
But the selection of Gabanelli could -- at least in theory -- offer a way out of the crisis. A 58-year-old award-winning television reporter most associated with state broadcaster RAI, Gabanelli is respected, though a complete political neophyte and not nearly as well known internationally as Prodi. But Grillo, who has refused many offers to form a coalition with Bersani, hinted he could change his tune if Bersani throws his support behind Gabanelli as president, calling her selection a "meeting point" for the two blocs.
No word yet if Bersani will consider supporting Gabanelli's candidacy. But if he does so it would all but assure her selection, making her the first female president in Italy's history.
But as the political drama in Italy plays out, Europe looks on in anticipation. Yields for Italian bonds on secondary markets have remained remarkably stable through the crisis, but European worries have been on the rise in a bloc already rattled by crisis situations in Greece and Cyprus, weighing on the euro currency and on stock exchanges across the continent.