Italy's oft-squabbling lawmakers try to pick a new president in test of Renzi's leadership

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ROME — Italian lawmakers were casting ballots Thursday for a new president in a test of Premier Matteo Renzi's ability to rally his fractured party behind a candidate who would also be palatable to opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi, whose support is needed for the government's ambitious reform agenda.

The 1,009 electors deposit their hand-written ballot in an urn and the tally was expected to take a couple of hours. Electing a head of state could take days. The first three rounds of voting through Friday need a two-thirds majority for a victor. Starting Saturday, the threshold drops to a simple majority, enhancing the probability that sufficient consensus could be found among Italy's myriad of political parties and alliances.

The Italian president's most crucial duty — beyond representing the country in prestige-building missions abroad — is 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. He resigned earlier this month, citing his age — 89.

Shortly before the vote began, Renzi pitched his proposal for the next president 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.

Renzi called on Democrats to cast ballots for Sergio Mattarella, a constitutional court judge. 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.

Another name touted as a presidential candidate has been that of Giuliano Amato, a former premier, who, too, survived unscathed the kickback probes that brought down his Socialist party.

Leaders of Berlusconi's center-right bloc in Parliament rejected Mattarella as a candidate. Renato Brunetta, a top Berlusconi aide, told Sky TG24 during the voting that the media mogul's Forza Italia lawmakers wouldn't vote for Mattarella.

Brunetta expressed disappointment Renzi hadn't picked someone to Berlusconi's liking. Brunetta cited the media mogul'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 the center-right bloc, although some prominent lawmaker bolted from his fold to form a smaller party in Renzi's coalition.

Nicole Winfield contributed to this report.

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