Italian president agrees to second term amid crisis

Italy's 87-year-old President Giorgio Napolitano on Saturday said he would run for a second term despite earlier ruling out the prospect, following an appeal from the main parties to help defuse an increasingly tense political crisis.

"I consider it necessary to offer my availability," Napolitano said in a statement, as bickering lawmakers prepared for a sixth round of voting in parliament that he is now expected to win by a large margin.

"I must assume my responsibilities before the nation and I ask for a corresponding assumption of collective responsibility," he said in a reference to parties that have been stuck in a two-month deadlock after an inconclusive general election.

Political leaders including the left's Pier Luigi Bersani and the right's Silvio Berlusconi, as well as outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, had held separate talks earlier on Saturday with Napolitano.

They said it was "necessary and urgent that parliament show unity and national cohesion with the re-election of President Napolitano," the presidency said in a statement after the talks.

Monti's party Civic Choice said the outgoing premier, whose cabinet has limped on with only interim powers, "pleaded" with Napolitano to stay "in the higher interest of the country."

Napolitano had previously told an interviewer he had "done everything I could" and said he intended to retire as his seven-year mandate comes to an end but he is seen as an important guarantee of stability in an increasingly confusing situation.

Given his advanced age, observers expect Napolitano, if re-appointed, would resign long before the end of a second mandate after the current crisis abates, even though there is no provision under the constitution for a short-term presidency.

A former top Italian Communist Party official, Napolitano was credited with engineering former European commissioner Mario Monti's rise to power after Berlusconi's chaotic ouster in 2011 during a wave of panic on the financial markets.

Trying to find a solution to the current political crisis proved too much, however, also because he currently does not have the power to dissolve parliament and call early elections -- a threat that could help push for a compromise.

If re-elected he would regain that power.

Italian presidents, who hold a mostly ceremonial role that takes on huge importance during times of instability, cannot call elections in the last six months of their mandate under the constitution.

The centre-left, which narrowly won elections in February but failed to get enough votes for a majority in parliament, has been in total disarray.

The leadership of the leftist Democratic Party -- its secretary Bersani and chairwoman Rosy Bindi -- resigned on Friday after two presidential candidates it proposed failed to get elected.

Ex-trade union leader Franco Marini and widely respected former European Commission chief Romano Prodi have both now withdrawn their candidacies.

In a fifth round of voting earlier on Saturday, the largest number of ballots cast were spoiled -- a stalling tactic as political parties scrambled to find a way out of the impasse.

Prodi lost on Friday after 101 lawmakers from the centre-left rebelled against their leadership and did not vote for him -- a sign of deep divisions.

"Collective Suicide", read the headline of an editorial in Il Fatto Quotidiano daily, adding that the PD was "in tatters".

La Repubblica said Prodi's failed candidacy was "a disaster" for the party, which was formed in 2007 as an amalgam of various centrist parties and the remnants of the powerful Italian Communist Party.

"The epicentre of the crisis is the Democratic Party," it said, accusing rebels from the centre-left of "blind cannibalism" and blaming the "mediocrity of the party leadership".

Bersani had been the target of growing criticism after he threw away a big lead in the opinion polls ahead of the February elections.

The eurozone's third largest economy has been in political deadlock since then with politicians unable to strike a compromise to form a government in the middle of a steep recession.

The big business lobby Confindustria has warned that Italy has already lost one percentage point in gross domestic product (GDP) since the political crisis began, although reaction from the financial markets has been relatively muted.

Observers had voiced hope that a cross-party agreement on a new president could have been the basis for a broader deal on forming a new government. But that now appears a distant prospect and fresh elections are more likely.