Jan 29, 1:43 PM EST

Italy lawmakers fail to elect new president in 1st round


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ROME (AP) -- Lawmakers failed to elect a new Italian president Thursday in balloting that tests Premier Matteo Renzi's ability to rally his fractured party behind a candidate that is also acceptable to opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi, whose support he has courted for the government's ambitious reform agenda.

Even as the names on the hand-written ballots from the 1,009 electors were still being read aloud, it was clear that, as expected, no candidate had come remotely close to the two-thirds majority needed to elect a new head of state in the first three rounds.

Electors will have another crack at it Friday. The biggest `'vote-getter" was `'blank ballot," a sign that broad consensus for a figure who is supposed to be above the political fray was still elusive despite days of political maneuvering by Renzi to secure backing for his choice.

Starting Saturday, the threshold for victory drops to a simple majority, enhancing the probability that sufficient agreement could be found among Italy's myriad of political parties and alliances.

The Italian president's post is largely ceremonial, but his powers including dissolving Parliament in case of unresolvable gridlock. The president also seeks to build consensus for a new premier in case of government collapse - not a rare event in Italy. The office is supposed to be above the political fray.

First to cast ballots were senators-for-life, including Giorgio Napolitano, who reluctantly accepted an unprecedented second term as the nation's president two years ago after squabbling lawmakers couldn't agree on a new one. The 89-year-old resigned earlier this month, citing his age.

Just before the vote, Renzi pitched his candidate -- constitutional court justice Sergio Mattarella -- to his Democratic Party, which includes factions bordering on open-rebellion. Renzi's brash, almost imperious manner has alienated some in his own party. The secrecy of the balloting could be tempting for party rebels who want to sabotage his proposal.

Mattarella's political roots lie in the defunct Christian Democrat party, which was swept away by corruption probes of the 1990s. Mattarella escaped the scandals unscathed, and he essentially left politics several years ago.

Renato Brunetta, a top Berlusconi aide, speaking to Sky TG24 TV during the voting, expressed disappointment that Renzi hadn't picked someone to the media mogul's liking. Brunetta cited Berlusconi's backing for Renzi's reform agenda, including measures to make elections more likely to yield stable governments.

Renzi and Berlusconi had met in recent days to try to find common ground on a candidate.

Berlusconi was stripped of his Senate seat because of a tax fraud conviction. He still leads a center-right bloc including the Forza Italia party he founded, although some prominent lawmaker bolted from his fold to form a smaller party in Renzi's coalition.

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Nicole Winfield contributed to this report.

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Follow Frances D'Emilio on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio

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