Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced the imminent retirement on Tuesday of President Giorgio Napolitano, setting up a risky search to replace the former Communist stalwart who extended his term to guide Italy through political turmoil.
The 89-year-old Napolitano, who agreed to a second term in 2013 after a deadlocked election left the country in a crisis, had let it be known he would leave after Italy's six-month presidency of the European Union, which ends on Tuesday.
The Italian president plays little part in day-to-day politics, but has the powers to choose a prime minister and dissolve parliament, which became crucial in the past few years when a divided parliament struggled to agree on a government.
The election of his successor carries political risks for 40 year-old Renzi, a center-left leader in power for almost a year. Some analysts believe Renzi will push for new elections if he cannot find broad support for a new candidate.
“I would like us to salute Napolitano, a committed Europeanist who in these hours will leave his post,” Renzi said in a speech to the European Parliament.
Napolitano, who was first elected to parliament in 1953, became president in 2006 as a prominent member of the Democratic Left, the rebranded Cold War-era Communists.
His supporters say he has been an anchor of stability in the country's political maelstrom, while his detractors see him as an arch representative of a discredited political class and accuse him of overstretching his powers.
He is expected to formally resign on Wednesday. Laura Boldrini, president of the Chamber of Deputies, parliament's lower house, will name the date for the election of his successor by 1,009 parliamentarians and regional representatives, which must begin within 15 days.
The voting, which requires a two-thirds majority in the first three rounds, can be highly unpredictable, with lawmakers using the secret ballot to scupper candidates and settle political scores.
Renzi said this week he was confident a president could be chosen in the fourth round, when only a simple majority is needed.
The search for a new president will be closely watched by other EU countries, hoping it does not cause instability in the euro zone's third largest economy. They are already concerned by elections in Greece on Jan 25 which point to a likely victory for the far-left Syriza party, also triggered over a prime minister's failure to win support for a president.
The search for a new head of state comes at a difficult time for Renzi. He has many enemies in his own Democratic Party (PD) who resent his uncompromising leadership style and oppose his plans for reform of the electoral law and the labor market.
The economy is still stuck in recession a year after he took office promising a rapid recovery, and he has struggled to produce deep reforms requested by the European Commission.
The reform process is likely to come to halt while parliament is occupied with the election of a new president.
There is no clear favorite to become the new president. Among names mentioned have been former Prime Minister Romano Prodi and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi.