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By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - Centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani is expected to propose former Senate speaker Franco Marini as candidate for Italy's president, on Wednesday, risking a split in his Democratic Party a day before voting begins.
A PD source said Marini, a prominent Catholic and former leader of the moderate CISL union, would be put forward at a party meeting shortly. He would also have the backing of Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right bloc and the centrists led by Prime Minister Mario Monti, the source said.
However he faces opposition from within Bersani's own camp, with the 38-year-old mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, his main party rival, immediately making clear that he would not back Marini.
"We oppose this choice. Our parliamentarians will not vote for him," he told the website of the daily La Stampa.
Parliament begins voting on Thursday for the successor to President Giorgio Napolitano, whose term ends on May 15.
It will be up to the new president to end the political deadlock left by the inconclusive February election, either by persuading the parties to come to an accord that would allow a government to be formed or by calling new elections.
Although the 80-year-old Marini has now emerged as the first candidate who appears to have some broad backing, there is no guarantee he will obtain enough votes in the secret ballot of lawmakers and regional representatives.
The parties have struggled for weeks to agree over the new president and Marini, who lost his seat in the February election, is known to be unpopular among many of the PD's senators and deputies.
Earlier on Wednesday the 5-Star Movement changed its candidate for president, saying it was backing academic and left-wing politician Stefano Rodota after its original choice, television journalist Milena Gabanelli, pulled out.
Rodota, who was president of the PD's predecessor, the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), in the 1990s, could potentially get significant backing from elements of the PD who do not want to do a deal with Berlusconi.
Other candidates often cited are former prime ministers Giuliano Amato and Massimo D'Alema, who are thought to have Berlusconi's backing, and former European Commission president and prime minister Romano Prodi, who does not.
Amato and D'Alema are both handicapped by perceptions that they are insiders too closely linked to the discredited traditional political elite.
A two-thirds majority of 1,007 electors from the combined houses of parliament plus 58 regional delegates are required to elect the president in the first three rounds of voting.
After that a simple majority is enough, meaning the PD could use the fact it has more deputies than any other party to force through a candidate with the backing of smaller groups.
Voting begins at 10 a.m. (0800 GMT) on Thursday and will proceed with two rounds per day until a president is elected.
As well as a ceremonial function, the head of the Italian state has a vital political role, a function Napolitano had to carry out during the 2011 financial crisis when he appointed Mario Monti to lead a technocrat administration.
(Additional reporting by Naomi O'Leary and James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
Italy centre-left's Renzi says won't back Marini for president
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