Ex-unionist tipped as Italy holds presidential poll

Italy's two main political blocs have agreed to back a former trade unionist for president ahead of voting in parliament from Thursday, heralding a possible end to a two-month impasse on a new government.

Pier Luigi Bersani's Democratic Party, which won elections in February by a narrow margin that failed to give it a parliamentary majority, and Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party agreed to support Franco Marini.

The pipe-smoking 80-year-old is seen as having formidable political skills.

If elected by lawmakers as is now likely, 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 after negotiations with lawmakers on Wednesday.

"He is a clear-sighted and generous person," Bersani said.

Berlusconi, a scandal-tainted former prime minister who remains a powerful force in Italian politics, said Marini was "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.

He grew up in a modest family in a village in the Abruzzo mountain region.

Marini's 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.

And Beppe Grillo, an ex-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.

While Wednesday's left-right agreement gives Marini a very strong chance, analysts say there could still be surprises since 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 from Thursday brings together both chambers of the Italian parliament as well as regional representatives -- making for 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.

Following the February elections, Bersani tried to woo lawmakers from the Five Star Movement 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.

The 87-year-old Napolitano had his hands tied as he attempted to steer negotiations between the parties since he was constitutionally prevented from calling elections in the last six months of the seven-year mandate.

His successor will have full powers to hold this out as a threat.

Big business, trade unions and the Roman Catholic Church have issued increasingly desperate pleas to politicians to set their differences aside as the country endures its worst recession since the post-war period.

Giorgio Squinzi, who leads the main employers' association Confindustria, has warned of a rise in bankruptcies and said the political crisis had already cost the economy around 1.0 percent in gross domestic product (GDP).

Financial markets have remained relatively muted as the deadlock has dragged on, however, although the prospect of repeat elections has been a growing concern.