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 political stalemate.
Until the new president is elected, the paralysis hobbling attempts to form a government since February's inconclusive general election will continue but a chaotic day of voting on Thursday showed how fractured the political landscape remains.
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 and 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 which is key to filling 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.
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 unless things changed, his 46 representatives would keep voting for Rodota.
Marini's failure could wreck Bersani's deal with Berlusconi which is aimed at helping him form a minority government.
Bersani has repeatedly refused to agree to Berlusconi's demands that they form a broad coalition together. But it is widely believed he wants to parley an agreement on the presidency with center-right willingness to support a minority center-left government.
FURY ON LEFT
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 inconclusive election in February which left no party with enough support to form a government.
However the choice of Marini provoked fury in Bersani's Democratic Party (PD) and an open revolt by his rival, Matteo Renzi, the 38-year-old mayor of Florence.
Renzi had described the 80-year-old Marini as "a candidate from the last century" who had no charisma or international standing, adding that he was only chosen because he was acceptable to Berlusconi.
"The PD is in fragments, it doesn't exist anymore," Renato Brunetta, the parliamentary leader of Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party, told Canale 5 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.
February's election gave Bersani's center-left alliance control of the lower house of parliament but short of the Senate majority it needed to form a government.
The 61-year-old former industry minister has faced growing pressure from Renzi and others in his party after throwing away a 10-point opinion poll lead before the vote.
(Additional reporting by Paolo Biondi; editing by Andrew Roche and James Mackenzie)