By Barry Moody and Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's parliament failed to elect a new state president in the first two votes on Thursday with a center-left rebellion against leader Pier Luigi Bersani torpedoing his official candidate and prolonging a political stalemate.
Until the new president is elected, the paralysis hobbling attempts to form a government since February's inconclusive general election will continue, and a chaotic day of voting showed how fractured the political landscape remains.
Italy's economy, the euro zone's third largest, has contracted for six straight quarters and the political disarray has compounded uncertainty in a country that came close to financial meltdown in 2011.
Bersani's candidate Franco Marini, a former Senate speaker, fell far short of the required two-thirds majority of the 1,007 electors in the first vote. In the second, he won no votes at all, with many members of both center-left and center-right blocs casting blank ballots.
Political sources said the casting of blank ballots was intended to protect Marini from further humiliation after a center-left rebellion against his candidacy made it impossible to win the two-thirds majority of electors from both houses of parliament plus regional representatives.
Marini's failure, in a vote needed to fill a government vacuum since the deadlocked general election in February, was a slap in the face for Bersani.
He badly split his party by nominating Marini in a deal with center-right boss Silvio Berlusconi.
Bersani told reporters he would meet the center-left electors to decide their next move ahead of a third vote on Friday morning. After that vote, a simple majority is required to elect a new president.
Parliamentary sources told Reuters that Bersani's Democratic Party (PD) has asked for a fourth vote to be delayed, possibly until Saturday, to give it more time to consider its strategy.
The request will be examined by a meeting of parliamentary leaders on Friday morning. The heads of Berlusconi's party in the lower house and Senate said in a statement later on Thursday they were opposed to any delay.
Bersani said he needed to accept that the election had entered "a new phase", indicating Marini, 80, would be dropped as a deeply divisive candidate. The center-left would make a new proposal for the presidential election, he said.
Many rebellious center-left parliamentarians voted in the secret ballot for academic Stefano Rodota, candidate of the populist 5-Star Movement of former comic Beppe Grillo.
Nichi Vendola, head of Bersani's leftist ally SEL, said nominating Marini was a mistake. "Marini was a candidate who united the center-right, not the center-left," he said.
He said that unless things changed, his 46 representatives would keep voting for Rodota.
Marini's failure could wreck Bersani's deal with Berlusconi aimed at helping him form a minority government.
Bersani has repeatedly rejected Berlusconi's demands that they form a broad coalition together. But it is widely believed he wants an agreement on the presidency to encourage the center-right to support a minority center-left government.
The vote for a successor to President Giorgio Napolitano, whose term ends on May 15, is a crucial step towards resolving the stalemate since an election in February which left no party with enough support to form a government.
However, the choice of Marini provoked fury in Bersani's PD and open revolt by his rival, Matteo Renzi, the 38-year-old mayor of Florence. Renzi had described Marini as "a candidate from the last century" without charisma or international standing, adding that he was only chosen because he was acceptable to Berlusconi.
Dozens of traditional PD supporters rallied outside parliament on Thursday in protest against the deal with Berlusconi. One woman tried to burn her party membership card.
"I would question whether a party in this kind of state is capable of governing," Daniela Santanche, a deputy in Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, told La7 television.
Failure to win the election of a candidate like Marini who is acceptable to Berlusconi could lead to the PD abandoning hopes of a deal with the center-right and going for a candidate like former prime minister Romano Prodi, one of Berlusconi's oldest political enemies. Such an outcome is widely seen as likely to lead to an election within months.
The head of state is a largely ceremonial figure but has a number of vital political functions, as Napolitano demonstrated in 2011 when he put Mario Monti at the head of a government of technocrats to replace the scandal-plagued Berlusconi.
It will be up to the new president to end the political deadlock left by the election, either by persuading the parties to come to an accord that would allow a government to be formed or by dissolving parliament and calling a new national vote.
(Additional reporting by Paolo Biondi and Catherine Hornby; editing by Mark Heinrich)