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Jan 14, 8:09 AM EST

Italy's president quits as promised; scramble's on for next

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ROME (AP) -- Italy's president resigned on Wednesday, setting off a scramble for a new head of state that will test Premier Matteo Renzi's ability to unite his own bickering party without alienating opposition support for electoral reform.

Two years ago, President Giorgio Napolitano reluctantly accepted an unprecedented second term because squabbling lawmakers couldn't agree on a successor. But citing advanced age, Napolitano, a popular figurehead, said he did not plan to serve all seven years of the second mandate.

After submitting his resignation, Napolitano, 89, and his wife walked past an honor guard at the presidential Quirinal Palace and returned to their Rome apartment to shouts of "welcome back" and "bravo."

Parliament and regional electors must hold a special election within 15 days for a new president. The largely ceremonial office is traditionally held by someone considered above the political fray.

One of Renzi's chief goals is to overhaul the electoral system to make governments more stable. He won support for the project from arch-rival Silvio Berlusconi shortly before snatching the premiership from a fellow Democrat in 2014.

In order to secure continued support from Berlusconi, many observers believe Renzi might accept a candidate backed by the media mogul and former conservative premier. Berlusconi himself cannot hold public office because of a tax-fraud conviction.

"Let's hope (the presidential election) isn't goods for barter between Renzi and Berlusconi," said populist Northern League leader Matteo Salvini.

There was no immediate cross-party consensus on a candidate to succeed Napolitano, a former Communist and Parliament veteran.

The president's duties include shepherding efforts to forge a new coalition if a government collapses - a not-rare event in Italy - and calling new elections if parliamentary support cannot be found for a new premier.

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