The Italian parliament has failed to elect a new president after a second vote. No single candidate won a two-thirds majority of the votes; another round is due to take place on Friday.
The majority of the ballots cast in the second round on Thursday evening appeared to be blank or spoilt, with parliamentarians looking to buy more time to agree on a winning candidate.
A single candidate needs at least 672 votes of the 1007 members of both houses of parliament and regional representatives.
It appeared that internal divisions within the center-left party stopped its official candidate and overall frontrunner, Franco Marini, from receiving enough votes in the first round. The former Senate speaker and trade unionist says he faces a difficult battle to gain enough support to become Italy's next president, replacing incumbent Giorgio Napolitano, whose term expires on May 15.
Filling the role of president is a critical step to ending a political stalemate in Italy, which began following February's inconclusive elections in which no party won enough seats to form a government. The new head of state can appoint a new prime minister or call fresh elections.
Marini's failure to win enough votes is seen as a setback to the center-left's leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, who nominated Marini in a deal with center-right boss Silvio Berlusconi, a scandal-ridden former prime minister.
Many center-left parliamentarians are believed to have voted for Stefano Rodota, candidate of former comedian Beppe Grillo's 5-Star Movement, which won around a quarter of February's vote.
On Thursday, Grillo was critical of the cross-party deal to back Marini for president, telling the news agency AFP his election "would be a disaster."
"He was a Christian Democrat, a trade unionist, a speaker of the senate, he is a man of the system," Grillo said. "He is a president who is a judicial guarantee. He's chosen by Berlusconi. He'll guarantee that Berlusconi stays in place."
"The leaders of right and left met at night in a room to decide the fate of 60 million people," said Grillo.
jr/kms (Reuters, AFP, dpa)