Rome - Voting in Italy's parliament to pick a president entered a chaotic third day on Saturday, with the left in total disarray after its leaders resigned over failure to get their candidates elected.
The situation deepened a political crisis triggered by a general election two months ago that left no clear winner to govern the country.
Ex-trade union leader Franco Marini and widely respected former European Commission chief Romano Prodi have both now withdrawn their candidacies to be president, and the top-selling Corriere della Sera daily said the country was "suspended in a void".
Voting began in the first of two rounds on Saturday but lawmakers from the main parties said they would either not take part or would cast empty ballots in a desperate stalling tactic as they decide what to do next and the centre-left attempts to smooth over widening rifts.
PD secretary Pier Luigi Bersani and chairperson Rosy Bindi announced on Friday that they were resigning after 101 lawmakers from the centre-left rebelled and did not vote for the coalition's proposed candidate, Prodi.
Italy's leftist press was pitiless.
"Collective Suicide", read the headline of an editorial in Il Fatto Quotidiano daily, adding that the PD was "in tatters".
Target of growing criticism
La Repubblica said Prodi's failed candidacy was "a disaster" for the party, which was formed in 2007 as an amalgam of various centrist parties and the remnants of the powerful Italian Communist Party.
"The epicentre of the crisis is the Democratic Party," it said, accusing rebels from the centre-left of "blind cannibalism" and blaming the "mediocrity of the party leadership".
Bersani had been the target of growing criticism after he threw away a big lead in the opinion polls ahead of the February elections, winning by such a narrow margin that he was left without an overall majority in parliament.
The eurozone's third largest economy has been in political deadlock since then with bickering politicians unable to strike a compromise to form a government as Mario Monti's outgoing cabinet limps on with interim powers.
The big business lobby Confindustria has warned that Italy has already lost one percentage point in gross domestic product (GDP) since the political crisis began, although reaction from the financial markets has been relatively muted.
Observers had voiced hope that a cross-party agreement on a new president could have been the basis for a broader deal on forming a new government. But that now appears a distant prospect and fresh elections are more likely.
"This is a real puzzle that the country cannot remain locked in for long," said Stefano Folli, a columnist for Il Sole 24 Ore business daily.
"A head of state has to be chosen very soon and with a large majority," he said, adding that "a more neutral candidate" could win the day.
Among the remaining possibilities is Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri, who has been proposed by Monti and would be the country's first female head of state or government.
The names of former prime minister Giuliano Amato and Massimo D'Alema are also frequently mentioned.
For its part, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement party, which won a quarter of the vote in the February elections, has put forward Stefano Rodota - an academic and civil rights advocate.