ROME: Italian lawmakers were locked in frenetic negotiations on Wednesday before they begin voting for a new president in a key step that could end a two-month impasse between the parties on forming a new government.
A joint session of both chambers of parliament together with regional representatives will meet starting on Thursday to pick a president who will have to try and clinch a deal between bickering political forces.
The most frequently mentioned names on the rumour mill are two former prime ministers - Giuliano Amato and Massimo D’Alema, but the vote is notoriously hard to predict.
But rank outsiders have also been mentioned, including leftist academic Stefano Rodota, who has long campaigned for civil rights and against rules-free capitalism.
An opinion poll by the IPR Institute identified Emma Bonino, a former European commissioner and veteran human rights campaigner as the most popular choice among Italians.
The names of former European Commission president Romano Prodi and the founder of medical charity Gino Strada have also been mentioned, indicating that the field is wide open.
“There could be surprises because of the differences within the parties and because agreements between party leaders are not Always respected,” said Giovanni Guzzetta, a constitutional expert at Rome’s Tor Vergata University.
The election for a successor to President Giorgio Napolitano could take a single day or several, with a two-thirds majority required in the first three rounds of voting and a simple majority thereafter.
No single party or coalition holds a majority, meaning that there will have to be some kind of compromise.
Analysts hope this could in turn be the basis for a long-delayed agreement on a new government for the eurozone’s third largest economy.
The main centre-left coalition won a general election on February 24-25 but only by a whisker and it failed to get enough votes for an overall majority in parliament.
Coalition leader Pier Luigi Bersani has tried to woo lawmakers from a new anti-establishment party, the Five Star Movement, but has been rebuffed.
Bersani has ruled out the most obvious alternative - a grand coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right - which would prove hugely controversial among leftists fiercely opposed to the scandal-tainted billionaire tycoon.
The Five Star Movement is Already predicting a right-left agreement and the party’s flamboyant leader Beppe Grillo, a former comedian, has already said the move would be “suicide” for Bersani.
The question of whether or not to strike a deal with Berlusconi has threatened to split Bersani’s Democratic Party but is appearing increasingly likely - according to observers on the eve of the voting.
Berlusconi has said there should be new elections if there is no cross-party deal with Bersani and opinion polls indicate that he would win, although they show he would still fail to get a majority.
The 87-year-old Napolitano was constitutionally prevented from calling new elections because he was in the last months of his seven-year mandate but the new president will have full powers to do so.
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.
Big business and trade union leaders have urged politicians to strike an agreement, warning that there is no time to lose as Italy endures its worst economic recession since the post-war period.
Giorgio Squinzi, head of the main employers’ association Confindustria, has said the protracted political crisis has Already cost the economy around 1.0 per cent in gross domestic product (GDP).
The Catholic Church, which remains influential in Italy, has Also upped the pressure.
Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian bishops’ conference, on Tuesday said: “The political world should stop its delays”.
“People have had enough,” the cardinal said after celebrating mass at a crisis-hit shipyard in the port of Genoa in northern Italy this week.
Giovanni Guzzetta, a constitutional expert at Tor Vergata university in Rome, said: “Once the president is elected, we will understand who is going to be in the government.”