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Voting for a new Italian president headed towards a fifth round Saturday, after the political deadlock claimed another victim, with centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani saying he will step down.
Bersani told party members late on Friday he would step down once a new president for the country had finally been elected, after his own candidate suffered a humiliating defeat.
The political impasse caused by February's inconclusive general election has stoked concern about stability in the recession-hit country, the eurozone's third largest economy.
Bersani's promise to step down came after the man he backed, former premier Romano Prodi, fell well short of getting enough support in voting Friday. As voting takes place in secret, deputies are not obliged to toe a party line.
Until the vote Prodi, a former European Commission chief, had been considered the front-runner for the job, but the right refused point-blank to support a politician who has twice inflicted election defeats on right-wing leader Silvio Berlusconi.
And 101 leftist voters also opposed him, leaving him with just 395 votes -- well short of the 504 needed to win.
The vote will now go to a fifth round at 0800 GMT Saturday. But Bersani said his Democratic Party (PD) would abstain from this round of the vote and resume talks with other parties.
In comments to the ANSA news agency, he acknowledged that his party alone could not get a candidate voted in.
Berlsuconi, welcoming the news that Bersani was stepping down, said his party would also abstain from Saturday morning's vote if the left and the right could not agree on a candidate.
The political in-fighting has dimmed hopes that the political deadlock will be broken any time soon.
Bersani had pinned his hopes on two-time premier Prodi, 73, a sharp about-turn after an earlier bid to work with the right.
On Thursday, a candidate backed by both Bersani and Berlusconi -- former Senator Franco Marini -- failed to win enough votes to get elected.
When Bersani switched to Prodi, hundreds of right-wing protesters made their feelings known, holding up placards outside the lower house of parliament, chanting "Prodi will not be my president!"
Experts had warned that the mutiny from the left over the vote risked splitting the party apart -- and that Prodi's candidacy was now effectively over. With Prodi defeated, it is not clear who the front-runner is.
The anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which had also rejected Prodi, said it would continue to support its candidate Stefano Rodota, a human rights advocate and respected academic.
In Friday's vote, Rodota got the support of 213 deputies, which means he won the backing of some of the left-wing deputies who broke ranks to reject Prodi.
Another name that has been mooted is that of Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri.
Even before Prodi's defeat, Bersani had been facing growing calls for his resignation after he let a large lead over the centre-right in the run-up to February's general election fritter away.
Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence and a rising star in the PD, challenged Bersani for the leadership in December and lost.
But many within the party now wonder whether he might have fared better in the elections.
Bersani failed to get enough votes for an overall parliamentary majority. Berlusconi came a close second and the Five Star Movement led by mercurial comedian Beppe Grillo was not far behind.
The three have failed to agree on much over the past two months despite increasingly desperate pleas from big business, trade unions and ordinary Italians.
Observers had been hoping that a cross-party agreement on a new president could yield a broader deal on a new government. But even that has so far proved beyond their reach.
The new president will have more powers than outgoing President Giorgio Napolitano. In the final months of his mandate he was constitutionally prevented from dissolving parliament and calling fresh elections.