Voting to choose Italy’s new president began on Thursday with a former trade unionist the frontrunner in an election which could herald the end of a two-month impasse over a new government, but is threatening to divide the centre-left.
In a last-minute agreement on Wednesday, Italy’s two main political blocs agreed to back Franco Marini, a pipe-smoking 80-year-old seen as having formidable political skills.
But leftist leader Pier Luigi Bersani’s bid to clinch a deal with Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party for a candidate with little public support or international standing infuriated many within his Democratic Party.
If elected by lawmakers, Marini will face the unenviable task of trying to bring the bickering parties together to break a deadlock that has raised fears of instability in the eurozone’s third-largest economy.
“Franco Marini is the candidate best-placed to achieve the greatest consensus,” Bersani said Wednesday, while Berlusconi – a scandal-tainted former prime minister who remains a powerful force in Italian politics – described Marini as “a positive and serious person”.
Marini is a former Christian Democrat and ex-leader of the Catholic CISL trade union, who was speaker of the Senate between 2006 and 2008.
His political mentor, former minister Carlo Donat-Cattin, once said of his determined protege that he “kills with a silencer”.
But dissidents in Bersani’s party -- led by 38-year-old Florence mayor Matteo Renzi – have said they will not vote for such an establishment figure.
Beppe Grillo, a former comedian who heads the anti-establishment Five Star Movement party, derided the choice as a “dodgy deal” between left and right.
Grillo said his party’s candidate was Stefano Rodota, a widely respected 79-year-old academic who has long campaigned for civil rights.
On Thursday, the Left Ecology Freedom party, which belongs to the centre-left bloc, said it would not support Marini but would vote for Rodota instead.
Analysts say the outcome of the ballot is far from clear because the vote is secret and lawmakers sometimes do not follow their party leadership.
Other names mentioned on the rumour mill have been three former prime ministers – Giuliano Amato, Massimo D’Alema and Romano Prodi – as well as former European commissioner and veteran human rights campaigner Emma Bonino.
No woman has ever been elected prime minister or president in Italy.
The voting to elect a successor to President Giorgio Napolitano brings together both chambers of the Italian parliament as well as regional representatives, with a total of 1,007 people eligible to vote.
A candidate must be supported by a two-thirds majority in the first three rounds of voting or by a simple majority from the fourth vote onwards.
There are two votes per day so the process could take several days.
The centre-left won elections in February by a narrow margin that failed to give it a parliamentary majority. Bersani has since tried to woo lawmakers from the Five Star Movement for their support by adopting many of their aims, but has been rebuffed.
He has so far ruled out the most obvious alternative -- a grand coalition with Berlusconi -- which would prove hugely controversial among left-wingers.
Berlusconi has said there should be new elections if there is no deal and polls indicate he would win, although still without the required majority.
While the presidency in Italy is a mostly ceremonial post, it takes on critical importance during times of political crisis, as shown by Napolitano’s manoeuvring to put Mario Monti in power when Berlusconi was ousted in 2011.