ROME (AP) — With a heavily polarized Parliament unable so far to agree on a new president for Italy, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano yielded Saturday to pleading from political leaders to be a candidate for an unprecedented second term and quickly end an impasse which has thwarted efforts to form a government in the recession-mired country.
The 87-year-old Napolitano, citing his advanced age, had repeatedly refused to be a candidate for another seven-year term. But he said in a statement after lobbying from the leaders that he "cannot help but take on the responsibility toward the nation."
Whether he will win in the latest round of balloting Saturday in Parliament will depend on whether political leaders can persuade their squabbling parties to close ranks behind Napolitano.
Lawmakers from Parliament's third-largest bloc, the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement led by comic-turned-political agitator Beppe Grillo, galvanized supporters in a noisy protest outside Parliament to protest the push for Napolitano. Grillo and his fast-growing movement are bitterly opposed to the incumbent, who in late 2011 appointed Mario Monti and a Cabinet of technocrats to replace an elected premier as the eurozone debt crisis threatened to engulf Italy.
Grillo called on his loyalists to turn out "a million strong" for the appointment with him at the rally.
Some other politicians also voiced their opposition to the Napolitano candidacy, saying Italians want a change from the old political establishment. But their numbers appeared too few to block Napolitano, a former Communist, from clinching the required simple majority to win.
Hours earlier, Parliament held a fifth — and yet again unsuccessful — ballot to choose a head of state. But even as senators, deputies and regional electors put their folded paper ballots into urns in the Chamber of Deputies, leaders ranging from caretaker Premier Monti to ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi, were paying calls on Napolitano, one by one, at the presidential Quirinal palace on one of Italy's ancient hills to beg him to reconsider his refusal to serve again.
Napolitano and his wife reportedly had already started packing their belongings as his term draws to a close on May 15. Napolitano would be a month shy of 95 at the end of a second term in 2020 should he serve the entire term in the post, which involves extensive foreign travel, energetic rounds of talks with political leaders to tap a candidates to form a new government and scrutiny of legislation before approving or rejecting it.
Napolitano's office said the leaders had made a "fervent appeal to reconsider his oft-given reasons to be unwilling to have a second term."
With Napolitano's reluctance to continue beyond a first term made plain, he might intend only to serve part of the term, long enough to encourage agreement over the leader and makeup of the next government and to shepherd the electoral reforms he had vainly hoped would have been enacted before February's election, to boost chances for a more stable and productive Parliament.
Monti, the economist picked by Napolitano to rescue Italy from the spreading Eurozone sovereign debt crisis after financial markets lost faith in media mogul Berlusconi's ability to lead the nation through tough times, as late as Friday night had been pushing his interior minister as a presidential candidate.
But "in the face of the evident difficulties some parties are running up against in deciding quickly on a shared solution," Monti went to see Napolitano and "urged him strongly to accept another term in the higher interests of the country," the premier's office said in a statement.
Berlusconi fell short in a comeback attempt in February elections for a fourth term as premier. Joining him in the lobbying was a leader of Berlusconi's center-right coalition ally, the Northern League. "Napolitano is the shared treasure of all Italians," said Luca Zaia, predicting that the president could be quickly re-elected.
Also lobbying the president was Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani, whose lawmakers cast blank ballots Saturday morning in a stalling tactic as he struggled to find a candidate supported by a wide consensus. The Democratic Party has been imploding under a leadership crisis since disappointing results in parliamentary elections. Bersani's forces control the Chamber of Deputies but not the Senate. Tapped by Napolitano to see if he could pull together a government ahead of the presidential election, Bersani failed, after refusing an offer by Berlusconi to join their bitterly opposed forces in a reform-focused coalition.
Bersani's hours as party leader were numbered, after he announced Friday night that he would resign once a president is elected. He threw in the towel after the latest humiliation from his own ranks, when party defectors Friday in the secret vote for president sabotaged his high-profile choice of candidate, former Premier Romano Prodi, an economist who is widely respected at home and abroad.
Italy is living through political "chaos squared," political science professor James Walston wrote in his blog. "It would be difficult to imagine a more disastrous way of running a party or a country," said the American University of Rome professor.
Without a new president, Italy's next government cannot be formed. The eurozone country, mired in recession, badly needs reforms. An overhaul of Italy's electoral law is needed, so elections will be less likely to yield gridlock as this year's vote did. Economically, Italy is stagnant, with unemployment stuck at high levels and widespread corruption discouraging business investments.
With Bersani's hobbled by his party's rebellion, and Berlusconi appearing to be above the political fray by promoting the prospects of a "grand coalition" government, the media mogul with a reputation for bouncing back could be better positioned to influence the choice of premier for the new government.
"It's hard not to grasp that Silvio Berlusconi is the real winner of this game," said left-wing leader Nichi Vendola, who said his forces would side with Grillo's protest movement in opposing Napolitano for president.
Meanwhile, rallying to the side of citizens feeling neglected by their political class were leaders of Italy's politically influential Catholic church.
"Too many people are living in misery," said Naples Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe in an appeal for action that he wrote for a local diocesan weekly. "There are people who are dying because of poverty imposed on them," the cardinal of that southern city said, urging politicians to "find rapid solutions. Do so quickly."
Presidents traditionally only serve one term, but there is no prohibition against a second mandate.