THE Italian Parliament, facing political chaos over the election of a new head of state, changed its voting rules yesterday after officials detected evidence of cheating at the ballot box.
The unprecedented scandal broke after the outgoing four-party coalition, riven by internal strife, failed in its bid to elect a president, forcing Christian Democrat leader Arnaldo Forlani to withdraw his bid.
No move can be made to name a new government and end Italy's power vacuum until Parliament finds a successor to Francesco Cossiga, who resigned April 28 - two months before the end of his mandate - in a final protest against the political system.
The Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, told Parliament yesterday that in Saturday's two rounds of voting, a handful of electors had cast double votes. He ordered immediate measures to prevent further cheating.
Mr. Scalfaro, who is in charge of the presidential election, said the only reason he was not annulling the votes was that the fraudulent ballots were so few that they could not have helped any of the candidates.
The voting on Saturday drew yet another blank.
There were three extra ballots cast in the fifth round Saturday morning and five extra in the sixth round later in the day.
The voting process, which began last Wednesday with a fist fight on the floor of the House, is being broadcast live on television every day. The cheating is likely to throw further discredit on Italy's widely-criticized politicians.
Under the old parliamentary rules scrapped yesterday, parliamentarians were allowed to pick up as many voting slips as they liked, making double voting possible.
Scalfaro ordered a voting booth to be constructed overnight under the Speaker's podium. Each parliamentarian is now handed a voting slip and a pencil as he enters the green booth.
Christian Democrat leader Forlani's withdrawal was a humiliating defeat for the center-left coalition, which has ruled Italy for most of the last 30 years and held on to a slim majority in last month's elections despite enduring a severe drubbing at the polls.
"It proves that even though the four parties still have the numbers, they are so divided among themselves that they cannot agree on anything," says Giorgio La Malfa, a member of the opposition Republican Party.
Some 60 coalition parliamentarians refused to vote for Mr. Forlani - most of them from his own Christian Democrat Party.
The coalition's failure effectively handed the initiative over to the opposition in the race to choose a new president.
The ex-communists are now expected to try to break the deadlock by proposing a Christian Democrat maverick such as Chamber of Deputies Speaker Scalfaro, who could win with the opposition's support whether or not he keeps the backing of all his own colleagues, observers say.