ROME, May 3 (Reuters) Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi said today he would not serve a second term, setting the scene for a parliamentary showdown over the election of a new president.
Parties across Italy's political spectrum had called on the respected 85-year-old to serve another seven-year term.
His decision to quit could heighten political tensions as Italy licks its wounds after the most closely contested and divisive election campaign in decades. It also risks delaying the formation of a new government.
Ciampi was a consensus candidate who enjoyed the backing of both outgoing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Prime Minister-Elect Romano Prodi, who scraped home in the election and has only a two-seat majority in the upper house of the Italian parliament.
Ciampi said in a statement that he felt it was not desirable for a president to serve two terms and, on a more personal level, that he no longer had the energy to take on the job.
Italy's parliament will gather on May 8 to begin elections for the new president, whose first task will be to call on Prodi to form a government.
If broad parliamentary support cannot be found to elect a president and Prodi's disparate, centre-left alliance cannot agree on a candidate of its own, the election could drag on for days, delaying the formation of a government.
Prodi said he regretted Ciampi's decision. Berlusconi told Reuters he was ''very sorry,'' adding that the centre-left should now put forward his own top aide Gianni Letta as a candidate who could get cross-party consensus.
ULTIMATE ARBITER That is extremely unlikely to happen. Instead, the left is expected to put forward one of its own people for the influential post.
As the ultimate arbiter of Italian politics, the president has the power to nominate the prime minister and dissolve parliament, prerogatives which could be crucial as Prodi prepares to try to govern with a wafer-thin majority.
Former prime minister Massimo D'Alema, the president of the largest centre-left party, the Democrats of the Left (DS), is considered a front runner.
''God prevent a left-wing president,'' Berlusconi said today, before Ciampi's decision. In recent days he has even threatened to call his supporters on to the streets in protest if a leftist president were elected.
Centre-left parliamentary sources told Reuters after Ciampi's statement that D'Alema was the ''only possible candidate' for the coalition, which has already elected candidates from its own ranks as speakers of both houses of parliament.
Prodi faces an awkward decision even before taking office.
If he doesn't back D'Alema he is likely to anger the DS, who already lost out in the elections for the other key roles of parliamentary speakers.
But if he lines up behind D'Alema he is sure to be criticised for refusing to do a deal with the centre-right after his narrow election win, and is sure to face a bruising, head-to-head confrontation in parliament.
Italy's partners and financial markets will be hoping the election of the president does not prolong the uncertainty following the April 9-10 election.
It took 13 days to elect Ciampi's predecessor, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro in 1992, 10 days to elect Sandro Pertini in 1978, and 16 days and 23 votes to elect Giovanni Leone in 1971.
REUTERS DKS RK0110