By Gavin Jones and Angelo Amante
ROME (Reuters) -The Italian parliament will convene on Jan. 24 to begin voting for a new head of state to replace the outgoing Sergio Mattarella, the chief of the lower house of parliament ruled on Tuesday.
The election of a new president of the republic may have major repercussions for the future of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government, which is trying to contain a wave of COVID-19 infections.
Draghi has made clear he would like to become president, bringing to an end his 11-month old government and leaving the country with the choice of either installing a new premier or holding elections a year ahead of schedule.
However, there is no guarantee the 74-year-old former European Central Bank chief will get the job.
The first choice of Italy’s centre-right parties is the 85-year-old four-times prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Other figures considered to be contenders are former lower house speaker Pier Ferdinando Casini, former Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and the current Justice Minister Marta Cartabia.
The president, elected for a seven-year term, normally has a largely ceremonial role, but enjoys extensive powers following elections or when a government falls. He has the final say in nominating the prime minister and other cabinet members.
The election, conducted by secret ballot among more than 1,000 parliamentarians and regional representatives, is an unpredictable process often taking several days.
There are no official candidates, and each parliamentarian writes the name of their choice on a piece of paper. This can produce extravagant proposals of sports stars, actors or other public figures.
Party chiefs usually try to negotiate a mutually acceptable candidate but the secret ballot means their instructions are not always followed by rank-and-file lawmakers.
In the first three rounds of voting, a two-thirds majority is required to elect a president. From the fourth vote on, the threshold is lowered to an absolute majority, meaning more than half of those who cast a ballot.
The parliamentarians vote one after the other and each round of voting normally takes more than four hours.
Since the current system was introduced, only two of Italy’s 12 presidents have been elected in the first three rounds of voting. The most drawn-out election was that of Giovanni Leone in 1971, which required 23 rounds.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)