ROME (AP) -- Italian lawmakers failed on Thursday to elect the nation's president during an initial round of voting, the latest worrisome symptom of the political discord that has thwarted the formation of a government for two months.
President Giorgio Napolitano's term ends next month, and choosing his successor is viewed as a critical step toward resolving the political impasse that resulted from inconclusive national elections for Parliament in February.
While the presidency is mostly ceremonial, the post has the power to dissolve Parliament and call a new national election. The president will also be the one to find someone with enough support in the legislature to try to form a government.
Italian heads of state, often widely respected and picked to be above the political fray, also work to build national unity, which is now vital as politicians squabble over how to rebuild Italy's recession-mired economy.
During Thursday's vote by both houses of Parliament and regional electors, Franco Marini, a long-time union leader and former Senate president, finished first but fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed during the first three rounds.
A second round of voting began Thursday afternoon, with results expected by the evening.
Political parties have sparred for weeks over suitable candidates to succeed Napolitano, but center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani and center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi had reportedly reached an agreement over Marini's candidacy on the eve of the vote.
Their candidate's failure to win sent Bersani and Berlusconi and their aides scrambling to find a new strategy, and likely a new candidate.
Since Bersani already failed himself to form a government in weeks past, his apparent inability to marshal his Democratic Party lawmakers in Parliament to rally behind his candidate further saps his standing as a major party, and potentially, a national leader.
Perhaps more significantly for Italians frustrated over rising taxes and stubborn unemployment, and for financial markets easily spooked by instability, the latest display of political disarray could be a prelude to a quick return to national polls to pick a new Parliament.
"It's a shame. We would have given a nice signal to the country, if we succeeded in quickly electing a new head of state," said a centrist leader, Lorenzo Cesa.
He sounded glum about the prospects of warding off the specter of new nationwide elections. "We must work again all together to find a synthesis. If we don't find it, it's clear that we will have (national) elections, that we will be into an electoral campaign," Cesa told Sky TG24 television.
Winning the presidency becomes easier starting with a fourth ballot, when a simple majority is required.
The third largest force in Parliament — the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement led by comic Beppe Grillo — had pushed another presidential candidate, a constitutional law expert. Grillo's candidate, Stefano Rodota, finished second in the first round of voting.
The bickering over the presidency reflects the divisions that lawmakers have been unable to overcome since Italy's Feb. 24-25 national election, which saw the center-left win control of the lower Chamber of Deputies, but not the Senate.
Bersani has repeatedly rebuffed an offer from media mogul Berlusconi to form a "grand coalition" government in a bid to stave off a new national election.
The new president will sound out political leaders to see who commands enough votes in Parliament to try to form the new government, a process that could take weeks. He will call new elections if no government can be formed.
Napolitano had asked Bersani to see if he could secure the necessary support, but Bersani came up short.