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Italy's parliament began a second round of voting Thursday to elect a new president after a first round failed to secure a victor in a ballot many hope will herald the end of a two-month impasse over a new government but which threatens fresh political divisions.
Whoever is elected 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.
In a last-minute agreement on Wednesday, Italy's two main political blocs had agreed to back Franco Marini, a pipe-smoking 80-year-old seen as having formidable political skills.
But the deal was seen as highly controversial by many across the political spectrum, with rebel voters preferring Stefano Rodota, a widely respected 79-year-old human rights advocate.
None of the candidates managed to win the necessary two-thirds support in the first round of voting, after leftist leader Pier Luigi Bersani's bid to clinch a deal with his rival Silvio Berlusconi over Marini infuriated many within the centre-left bloc.
He was slammed as having neither public support nor international standing and experts said it was unclear whether he could win critics over.
Winning consensus from Italy's bickering political parties "appears more difficult than squaring the circle," political commentator Massimo Franco said in the Corriere della Sera daily.
Current frontrunner 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.
Dissidents have said they will not vote for such an establishment figure and many across the left accuse Bersani of cosying up to scandal-tainted ex-premier Berlusconi and the right.
A failure on Marini's part to win the presidency would be a severe blow to Bersani, and some fear the centre-left bloc may split apart, throwing Italy's political scene into further chaos.
The left, "ever more divided and exposed to the napalm of its own internal Vietnam, risks paying dearly", warned political expert Massimo Giannini in La Repubblica daily.
-- Increasingly desperate pleas for consensus --
Beppe Grillo, a former comedian who heads the anti-establishment Five Star Movement party, told AFP in an interview that Marini's election "would be a disaster."
Grillo's movement put forward Rodota as candidate, and hundreds of protesters held a demonstration in Rome on Thursday, calling for the respected academic to be given the post.
Other names in the rumour mill have included three former prime ministers -- Giuliano Amato, Massimo D'Alema and Romano Prodi -- as well as former European commissioner Emma Bonino.
The voting to elect a successor to President Giorgio Napolitano brings together both chambers of 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.
In the first round of voting, Marini snapped up 521 votes, while Rodota won 240.
With two votes per day, the process could take several days.
The centre-left won elections in February but failed to get a parliamentary majority.
Bersani has so far ruled out a coalition with Berlusconi, but the billionaire media magnate has said there should be new elections if there is no deal, and polls indicate he would win.
While the presidency in Italy is a mostly ceremonial post, it takes on critical importance during times of political crisis.
Napolitano's hands were tied in negotiations between the parties since he was constitutionally prevented from calling elections in the last six months of his 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 desperate pleas to politicians to set their differences aside as the country endures its worst recession since the post-war period.
Giorgio Squinzi, head of 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).