ROME -- A first round of voting in Italy's Parliament for the country's next president yielded an avalanche of blank ballots Monday, as lawmakers and special regional electors failed to deliver a winner amid a political stalemate.
With special pandemic precautions, balloting began even as party leaders huddled during a flurry of backroom meetings to try to find a candidate who could cement consensus across the political spectrum for the office, which is supposed to represent national unity and be above partisan politics.
During the first three rounds of voting, a two-thirds majority, or 672 votes, is necessary to win. On Monday, that number was reached — but with blank ballots. Some six hours after the session began, the tally was announced, with 672 ballots cast with no name written on them.
Among the array of names gathering a smattering of support, with 16 votes, was outgoing President Sergio Mattarella, 80, who has repeatedly said he did not want to run again.
A second round of voting was set for Tuesday afternoon. But that session, too, was likely to fall short of giving the nation a new president, as more closed-door political consultations among allies and rivals were scheduled.
Starting with the fourth round Thursday a simple majority of 505 votes would clinch victory.
The presidency is a largely ceremonial post that still requires political acumen to steer Italy through its frequent political crises. Presidents can also send legislation back to Parliament and dissolve the legislature ahead of its term in case it loses its working majority.
Neither of Parliament's two main blocs has enough votes for a simple majority, meaning parties are scrambling to reach a consensus as well as win pledges of support from about 90 electors not aligned with either bloc.
“The process will take some days," said Liguria Gov. Giovanni Toti, who leads a small center-right party.
As part of COVID-19 safety protocols, traditional voting booths were replaced by easier to sanitize pass-through door-less structures, and the electors were instructed to use hand sanitizer before filling out their ballot. By special arrangement, a good dozen electors who have COVID-19 were allowed to cast their ballots at a parking lot drive-in behind Parliament.
One anti-vaccine lawmaker, who had earlier been expelled for her anti-science views from the populist 5-Star Movement and who now has no party allegiance, refused to take a COVID-19 test and was not allowed to vote. The lawmaker, Sara Cunial, said she would file an official protest, Italian media reported.
Ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi withdrew his controversial candidacy to be president on Saturday. The 85-year-old has been undergoing tests at a hospital in Milan, his office confirmed Sunday.
Premier Mario Draghi has signaled his willingness to be elected to the post, but support from parties in his broad pandemic coalition is split over concerns that his move from head of government to head of state could trigger an early election before the scheduled time of spring 2023.
Berlusconi and his ally Matteo Salvini, the right-wing League leader, oppose Draghi's candidacy, largely worried that a Draghi move to the Quirinal presidential palace could trigger an early election.
The 5-Star Movement, Parliament's largest party, is split, because Draghi came to power when Mattarella last year tapped him to replace Premier Giuseppe Conte, their leader.
A former central banker and former head of the European Central Bank, Draghi helped Italy secure billions in European Union funding to relaunch the economy. Draghi has said his role is largely complete, but some want him to stay on to reassure the EU that the funds will be properly spent.
Colleen Barry reported from Milan.