ROME (Reuters) -Italy's parliament began voting on Monday for a new head of state, with Prime Minister Mario Draghi among the most prominent candidates in a wide-open contest which will be closely monitored by financial markets.
With a cross-party accord looking elusive, the election could trigger fresh political uncertainty in the euro zone's third largest economy, which is facing a resurgence of COVID-19 infections and deaths.
Draghi, who leads a national unity administration, has made clear he would like the highly prestigious job, which has a 7-year term and may be more appealing than heading up his fractious coalition ahead of elections due early next year.
But there is a reluctance among some parties to back him for fear his departure could lead to a snap vote they want to avoid.
"At this difficult moment, it would be dangerous to remove Draghi from the post of prime minister," rightist League leader Matteo Salvini said on Sunday, echoing similar remarks by his coalition partner Silvio Berlusconi who withdrew his own candidacy on Saturday.
However, should Draghi fails to land the president's job, some commentators are suggesting he may not want to continue as prime minister either if the coalition backing his government splits over the presidential election.
"Regardless of the outcome, the political equilibrium that has prevailed since Draghi became prime minister in February 2021 has been shaken, if not broken, by the presidential election," said Wolfango Piccoli of London-based political risk consultancy Teneo.
Markets, eyeing the risk of a snap election, were in wait-and-see mode on Monday, with assets mainly driven by tension over Ukraine.
The head of state is responsible for resolving political crises, making it a key role in a country where governments survive just one year on average. The president has the final say in nominating prime ministers and other cabinet members.
In a process that could take several days, more than 1,000 parliamentarians and regional representatives convened at 1400 GMT for the first round of secret voting to replace the outgoing President Sergio Mattarella.
The winner needs a two-thirds majority in any of the first three rounds, with an absolute majority enough thereafter.
PLAYING FOR TIME
The first voting round, due to end at around 2000 GMT, looks certain to be inconclusive.
The leaders of all the main parties in parliament said their lawmakers would cast blank ballots, a way of playing for time while cross-party negotiations continue.
If Draghi were to become head of state, a deal on another prime minister would be immediately needed to ensure that instability does not jeopardise Italy's drive to receive some 200 billion euros ($226.80 billion) of EU pandemic relief funds.
Until recently, Draghi was considered almost a shoo-in to move to the presidential palace. With Salvini and Berlusconi now both calling for him to stay on as premier for the remaining year of the government's term, his chances seem to have diminished, but he remains among the front runners.
Salvini will meet Democratic Party leader Enrico Letta, a Draghi supporter, and former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who leads the 5-Star Movement, on Monday to discuss the situation.
Earlier on Monday, he met Draghi, a political source said. Draghi's office declined to comment.
Hard-right Brothers of Italy leader Giorgio Meloni, an ally of Salvini and Berlusconi, named several right-leaning figures on Monday as potential candidates for the conservative alliance.
These included current Senate speaker Elisabetta Casellati, one of her predecessors Marcello Pera and former Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti. It remains to be seen if any of these could attract support from the centre left.
Among other contenders are former lower house speaker Pier Ferdinando Casini, former premier Giuliano Amato and Elisabetta Belloni, a career diplomat who currently coordinates the secret services.
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(Editing by Alexander Smith and Alison Williams)