Prodi Prepares for Power as Italy's Premier

Center-left leader Romano Prodi prepared Friday for his return to power, shrugging off Premier Silvio Berlusconi's refusal to concede defeat in Italy's election and facing the first dispute within his wide-ranging coalition.

The squabbling between two center-left allies over who should become speaker of the lower house of parliament posed the first test of Prodi's leadership and renewed questions over the bloc's cohesion.

"It's a test that comes very soon, when we are still far away from the official mandate," wrote financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore. Top newspaper Corriere della Sera described the dispute as an "emblematic mess."

President George W. Bush called Prodi to congratulate him on his election victory, Prodi's office said.

Bush "expressed his hope to soon be able to begin working with the new Italian government," a statement from Prodi's office said. Bush also said he hoped to soon personally meet Prodi, the statement said.

Massimo D'Alema, president of the Democrats of the Left party, and communist leader Fausto Bertinotti are fighting over the speaker's post, the country's third-highest office.

D'Alema says the job should be given to him in recognition of the size of his party, the coalition's largest. Bertinotti had put forth his candidacy weeks ago, and Prodi might be wary of disappointing the ally who toppled his first government years ago.

The two parties are heirs to what was once the West's largest Communist Party: The Democrats of the Left have gone mainstream center-left, while Bertinotti's Communist Refoundation still proudly displays the hammer and sickle in its flag.

"In a couple of days I will make the decisions that are required of me," Prodi said Friday, a day after receiving a letter from the Democrats of the Left demanding that he resolve the matter.

But the dispute gave Prodi a taste of what might come.

The center-left coalition is made up of two mainstream center-left parties -- the Democrats of the Left and the Daisy party -- and a group of smaller formations ranging from communists to Catholics to secular radicals.

Prodi, a former premier and European Union chief, has played down potential divisions. But many analysts have expressed doubts that his government can last and be effective in tackling the country's economic woes.

Prodi also said Friday that Tommaso Padoa Schioppa, a former board member of the European Central Bank and a highly respected economist, might be the next economy minister. Rome's La Repubblica daily reported a day earlier that he would be tapped.

"Certainly it's one of the hypotheses, a serious and well thought-out one," he said, adding that nothing had been decided yet. "The government must last, therefore serious sounding out is required."

Prodi was continuing talks over the formation of a government, even though it will be weeks before he can take over due to institutional procedures.

A top court on Wednesday confirmed Prodi's razor-thin victory in the lower house of parliament, but Berlusconi has still not conceded, despite calls from some of his own allies to recognize his rival's victory.

In an interview published Friday in the Trieste-based daily Il Piccolo, Berlusconi said he would appeal the court's decision, made after a count of contested ballots, to a regional administrative court in Rome. He renewed demands for thorough checks on invalid ballots.

"If the left is so certain of its numbers and success, why doesn't it accept a vote check?" said Berlusconi.

By law, after the count of contested ballots, any further challenges are dealt with by election committees set up by the new parliament. The procedure could take weeks and is not expected to stall the political process.

Prodi has dismissed Berlusconi's resistance as "sad," but said it would have no bearing on the next steps. "Democracy goes on anyway," he said.

And even some of Berlusconi's closest foreign allies have recognized the center-left's victory. The U.S. State Department said this week it looked forward to working with Prodi's government, while Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Prodi on Friday to congratulate him.