ROME (Reuters) - Giorgio Napolitano, Italy's 89-year-old president who helped to guarantee the country's political stability during a period of upheaval, hinted on Tuesday he might retire early next year.
Italy's head of state is a largely ceremonial figure but Napolitano, a former communist first elected in 2006, helped to steer the country through the euro zone crisis.
He reluctantly bowed to cross-party pressure in 2013 to accept a second term despite his advanced age but signaled from the start that he did not plan to serve a full seven-year term.
On Tuesday, Napolitano said he remained "committed" to his role until the end of Italy's presidency of the European Union.
Italy's presidency formally ends on Dec. 31 but Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will effectively hand over the reins to the next country, Latvia, on Jan. 13 when he is due to make a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
"Italy's European Union presidency ends on January 13," Napolitano told a gathering of politicians at the presidential palace in Rome.
"Institutional continuity is vital. I committed myself personally once again to represent and guarantee that (continuity) for the length of this special period in which Italy holds the European presidency," he said.
Earlier this month, Napolitano's office said he would assess the situation at the end of Italy's presidency, amid widespread media speculation that he was poised to retire.
The choice of Napolitano's successor will be closely watched as an indicator of how strong a grip Renzi has on his ruling center-left Democratic Party.
Italy selects its president via a series of votes in parliament. As a two-thirds majority is needed in the first three votes to choose the president, the selection is often a gauge of the government's popularity.
Though the president's powers are limited under the constitution, he has the authority to dissolve parliament, a powerful tool in Italy's fragile politics.
At the height of the euro zone crisis in 2011, after Silvio Berlusconi resigned as prime minister, Napolitano appointed Mario Monti to head a cabinet of unelected professionals to steer Italy away from the brink of bankruptcy.
He agreed to serve a second term in a bid to end a stalemate left by an inconclusive parliamentary election.
(Reporting by Paolo Biondi, writing by Isla Binnie; editing by Gareth Jones)