Italian President Giorgio Napolitano handed in his resignation as head of state today (14 January), leaving Prime Minister Matteo Renzi with the politically delicate task of finding a successor.
The 89-year-old Napolitano, widely respected outside Italy as a guarantor of stability during the eurozone crisis, had always been expected to step down before the end of his second term in office because of his advanced age.
With elections in Greece due later this month and the European Central Bank under growing pressure to take unprecedented steps to fight the risk of deflation, the change adds to an increasingly uncertain climate in the euro zone.
Italy is struggling to emerge from years of recession and the government faces a series of hurdles to its economic and constitutional reform agenda.
Stalemate over selecting a new head of state could absorb precious political energy and, at worst, undermine Renzi to the point where he might try to re-establish his authority with an early general election.
Speculation has been underway for months over who will succeed Napolitano in an office with wide but loosely defined powers that range from naming prime ministers and vetoing laws to exercising general moral suasion over government policy.
No clear front-runner has emerged with potential candidates ranging from former Prime Minister Romano Prodi or current Economy Minister Pier Carlo Padoan to constitutional court judge Sergio Mattarella. ECB President Mario Draghi, once seen as a candidate, has ruled out leaving his current position.
The new president will be elected in a secret ballot by a full sitting of both houses of parliament, plus representatives of the regions, in a complicated multi-round procedure.
Voting must begin within 15 days and is expected to start at the end of the month. The debacle in 2013, when political faction-fighting obliged Napolitano to step in as a compromise candidate, underlines how risky the procedure can be.
Renzi’s center Democratic Party has about 450 people in the 1,009-strong voting assembly, ensuring the prime minister has the numbers eventually to elect his candidate without relying on help from major opposition parties.
But the real risk for Renzi, who took power less than a year ago, may come from within his own party ranks, where leftwingers and some of the old guard may try to extract concessions from a prime minister whom they have always regarded with suspicion.
Napolitano, a former Communist who first entered parliament in 1953, reluctantly agreed to serve a second term in 2013 after a deadlocked general election threatened to create political chaos. Presidential terms in Italy normally last seven years.