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Showdown over key Italy presidential vote

Romano Prodi pictured at the foreign office in Berlin on October 23, 2012
File picture taken on October 23, 2012 shows president of the African Union-UN peacekeeping panel Romano Prodi giving a press conference at the foreign office in Berlin. Two-time Italian prime minister Prodi, the centre-left candidate for Italy's presiden

Italy faced further political turmoil on Friday as bickering parties clashed over a vote to elect a new president, throwing doubt over former premier Romano Prodi's candidacy and dimming hopes of an end any time soon to a bitter deadlock in the recession-hit country.

As parliament entered a key fourth round of voting, the centre-left said it would back Prodi for the job -- but the former European Commission head's victory was still up in the air after the main parties on the right rejected him and said they would refuse to cast their ballots.

Dozens of right-wing protesters holding up placards demonstrated in front of the lower house of parliament, chanting "Prodi will not be my president!"

Whoever wins will be faced with the challenging task of attempting to unblock an impasse in the eurozone's third largest economy created by an inconclusive general election in February. Despite numerous willing candidates, the parties have been unable so far to come to an accord.

The fourth round could be decisive: while in the first rounds candidates need a two-thirds majority, from this round onwards they need only a simply majority -- or 504 votes -- to win.

Centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani has pinned his hopes on two-time premier Prodi, 73, in a sharp about-turn on an earlier bid to work together with the right.

The move, which infuriated his rival Silvio Berlusconi, was an attempt to stem damage caused by the dramatic failure of the Democratic Party (PD) to get their first favoured candidate -- former Senate speaker Franco Marini -- elected.

Bersani and Berlusconi had initially agreed to back Marini for the seven-year mandate but it quickly became clear that many leftist lawmakers had rebelled against their leadership.

The PD's more left-wing coalition partner, the small "Left, Ecology and Freedom" (SEL) party, refused to back Marini, as did the PD's rising star, 38-year-old mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi, forcing Bersani to re-group and propose the more palatable Prodi.

Italian senate president Pietro Grasso (L) and parliament president Laura Boldrini read ballots on April 19, 2013
President of the Italian senate Pietro Grasso (L) and the president of the Italian parliament, Laura Boldrini read ballots during the election of the President of Italy on April 19, 2013 at the Italian parliament in Rome.

However this decision was immediately scorned by the centre-right and both the People of Freedom (PDL) party and its Northern League ally said they would refuse to vote in the fourth round.

Former European Commission head Prodi The PD "is sacrificing representation for all Italians in order to look after their own interests," Berlusconi said in a note.

Former European Commission head Prodi beat Berlusconi twice in past legislative elections and is seen as the media magnate's political nemesis.

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement has also rejected Prodi and said it would continue to support its candidate Stefano Rodota, a human rights advocate and respected academic.

And despite earlier assurances that the PD would vote unanimously for Prodi, experts said up to 60 party electors could jump ship and vote for someone else.

Voting takes place in secret, meaning electors are not obliged to toe a party line. Should no candidate win this round, further ballots are likely to be held on Saturday.

Should Bersani fail to get Prodi elected, his job may be on the line. There have been growing calls for him to quit after he threw away a large lead over the centre-right at the general election.

Renzi challenged Bersani for the party leadership in December and lost -- but many within the party are now wondering whether he might have fared better in the elections.

Bersani failed to get enough votes for an overall majority in parliament, with Berlusconi coming in a close second and the Five Star Movement led by mercurial comedian Beppe Grillo 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 as the country endures a painful recession.

Bersani has tried to woo Grillo to no avail and has also so far ruled out a "grand coalition" with Berlusconi -- a move that would bring the scandal-tainted billionaire tycoon back to power.

Observers had been hoping that a cross-party agreement on a new president could yield a broader deal on a new government.

The new president will also have more clout than outgoing President Giorgio Napolitano, who was constitutionally prevented from dissolving parliament and calling fresh elections because he was in the last months of his mandate.

Analysts say the threat of another general election -- an unnerving prospect for the financial markets -- could help finally yield a compromise.