ROME Center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani announced his resignation on Friday after party rebels sabotaged two separate candidates he had backed for state president, deepening Italy's political chaos.
Bersani told a meeting of parliamentarians he would quit as Democratic Party (PD) leader as soon as the election of the next head of state was completed, following two dramatic days of parliamentary voting in which successive center-left candidates were scuppered in secret ballots.
"He accepted his responsibility after the disgrace of what happened," Paolo Gentiloni, a senior Democratic Party parliamentary deputy said after Bersani's announcement.
Then disarray in the center-left, which has the most seats in parliament, could make a snap election in the summer more likely to end the political deadlock, but there is no clarity about the next moves after weeks of chaos.
It is unclear who will take over leadership of the badly split party but Bersani's departure could clear the way for arch-rival Matteo Renzi, the dynamic 38-year-old mayor of Florence, to take over.
Bersani's announcement came shortly after former Prime Minister Romano Prodi announced he was pulling out of the race for president after more than 100 center-left electors disobeyed Bersani's instructions to vote for him in parliament.
It was the last of a series of humiliating setbacks for Bersani and blunders that have shredded his ability to hold the center-left bloc together.
The collapse of efforts to secure the presidency for Prodi, a respected international figure, underlined the deep fractures running through politics in a country still seeking a government nearly two months after February's inconclusive general election.
"The politicians should be ashamed of what they're doing to the country. Today we're seeing a level of irresponsibility that goes beyond all limits," said Diego Della Valle, head of shoe group Tod's, one of Italy's most successful clothing companies.
The presidency, an office elected by parliamentarians and regional representatives, is a largely ceremonial position, but is important at times of political instability like the present, when the president plays a major role in forming a government.
Outgoing President Giorgio Napolitano has been unable to find a way out of the crisis with his powers restricted at the end of his mandate.
Without a new government, efforts to pull the euro zone's third-largest economy out of recession and pass meaningful reforms will remain blocked, while rising unemployment and declining living standards feed an increasingly bitter popular mood.
Bersani's proposal of Prodi as president sparked the fury of center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi, who was twice defeated by him in national elections.
Berlusconi's lawmakers boycotted the vote for president and protested outside parliament, accusing Bersani of breaking a promise to put forward a candidate the center-right could accept. They said the move brought elections closer.
"Prodi's failure was stunning and embarrassing. What's left in the ballot box are the fragments of the PD," said Renato Brunetta, the leader of Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party in the lower house said after the vote.
Even before Bersani stood down, PD president Rosy Bindi announced that she was quitting because she did not want to carry responsibility for the party's "poor showing" in recent weeks.
The vote was the fourth in a complex election process by 1,007 electors from both houses of parliament and the regional representatives.
Fifth and sixth votes are expected on Saturday but Berlusconi announced his group would again not participate unless there was an agreement on the president between the parties beforehand.
One PD official said the center-left electors would cast blank ballots, meaning no president could be elected.
The failure of four votes so far demonstrates the political animosity and uncertainty since the election in February, in which Bersani's bloc won the most votes but not enough to rule on its own.
Bersani failed to agree a ruling coalition with either Berlusconi on the center-right or former comedian Beppe Grillo, whose populist protest movement's unexpected electoral success has confounded the traditional parties.
The bitter battle over the presidency has underlined how hard it will be to reach political consensus on anything, let alone vital economic reforms or changing an electoral law that is one of the main causes of the current impasse.
Bersani's selection of Prodi marked a dramatic about-turn, after he failed on Thursday to impose 80-year-old former Senate speaker Franco Marini on the center-left as presidential candidate under the terms of a deal with Berlusconi.
Bersani hoped that reaching an accord with media tycoon Berlusconi would ease the path to the formation of a minority government. But furious PD opposition to any deal with the scandal-plagued billionaire, currently fighting two separate trials over sex charges and a tax fraud conviction, forced him to backtrack.
(Additional reporting by Paolo Biondi, Giselda Vagnoni, Naomi O'Leary and Gavin Jones; Editing by David Stamp and Gavin Jones)