ROME Italy's divided parliament began voting for a new state president on Thursday, with the center-left alliance led by Pier Luigi Bersani deeply split over the choice of former Senate speaker Franco Marini as their candidate.
Bersani nominated Marini, a prominent Catholic and former head of the moderate CISL union, in order to forge a broad accord on the presidency with center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi and the small centrist grouping of caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti.
But the choice provoked fury in Bersani's Democratic Party (PD) and an open revolt by his rival, Matteo Renzi, the 38-year-old mayor of Florence. He said a vote for Marini would be a "disservice to the country".
The vote for a successor to President Giorgio Napolitano, whose term ends on May 15, is a crucial step towards resolving the stalemate since an inconclusive election in February which left no party with enough support to form a government.
Bersani has repeatedly refused to agree to Berlusconi's demands that they form a broad coalition government together. But it is widely believed he wants to parley an agreement on the presidency with center-right willingness to support a minority center-left government.
Renzi described the 80-year-old Marini as "a candidate from the last century" who had no charisma or international standing, adding that he was only chosen because he was acceptable to Berlusconi.
As many as 90 of the 430 PD parliamentarians voted against Marini at a party meeting on Wednesday night, meaning that even with the votes of Berlusconi and the centrists, it is uncertain whether he can win the two-thirds majority required for victory in the first three votes in parliament.
"The PD is in fragments, it doesn't exist anymore," Renato Brunetta, the parliamentary leader of Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party, told Canale 5 television.
Even by the tangled standards of Italian politics the situation is complicated, but until the new president is elected, the paralysis that has hobbled attempts to form a government for more than 50 days since the election will continue.
On Wednesday, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement led by former comic Beppe Grillo named its candidate as Stefano Rodota, a left-wing academic who is anathema to Berlusconi but who many in the center-left would be prepared to support.
Bersani's leftist allies in the Left Ecology and Freedom (SEL) party said Marini was unacceptable and that their 46 parliamentarians would vote for Rodota.
A joint sitting of the two houses of parliament, joined by 58 regional delegates, began voting on Thursday at 10 a.m. (0800 GMT), but no result may be reached before the weekend if Marini does not secure sufficient backing.
Two rounds of voting will be held every day, with a two-thirds majority or 672 of the 1,007 electors needed in the first three rounds. The PD, which controls the lower house, has the largest number of electors with 430, ahead of the PDL with 211 and the 5-Star Movement with 162.
If no candidate succeeds in the initial rounds, the required threshold drops to a simple majority from the fourth round. But it is unclear whether Marini would remain in the race or drop out if he failed to secure the two-thirds majority.
That could lead to the PD abandoning hopes of a deal with the center-right and going for a candidate like former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, one of Berlusconi's oldest political enemies. Such an outcome is widely seen as likely to lead to an election within months.
The head of state is a largely ceremonial figure but has a number of vital political functions, as Napolitano demonstrated in 2011 when he put Mario Monti at the head of a government of technocrats to replace the scandal-plagued Berlusconi.
It will be up to the new president to end the political deadlock left by the election, either by persuading the parties to come to an accord that would allow a government to be formed or by dissolving parliament and calling a new national vote.
February's election gave Bersani's center-left alliance control of the lower house of parliament but short of the Senate majority it needed to form a government and unable to agree to a deal with either Grillo or Berlusconi.
The 61-year-old former industry minister has faced growing pressure from Renzi and others in his party after throwing away a 10-point opinion poll lead before the vote.
While the fiery Grillo remains firmly opposed to the main parties, agreement over the candidacy of Marini could signal greater willingness on the part of Bersani and Berlusconi to come to an understanding that would avert immediate new elections.
However Brunetta said the revolt in the PD ranks suggested the prospects of a government accord being reached remained highly uncertain.
"It depends on the result this morning. But from the signs so far from the PD groups since last night I am not optimistic," he said.