Jan 30, 12:45 PM EST

Chances improve for Renzi's pick to become Italian president


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ROME (AP) -- Italian Premier Matteo Renzi forged ahead Friday with his candidate for president, even at the risk of losing broad support for his reform agenda, after initial rounds of balloting by lawmakers failed to yield a new head of state.

Chances of victory improve on Saturday for constitutional court justice Sergio Mattarella when the vote in Parliament needs only a simple majority, instead of the two-thirds threshold in balloting Thursday and Friday.

Renzi's strategy in the opening rounds was to advocate casting blank ballots. He apparently succeeded in closing the fractious ranks of his Democrats, who sometimes chafe over his almost imperious leadership, since hundreds of such ballots were counted. On Saturday, if those who cast blank ballots write down Mattarella's name, his candidate should clinch the 505-vote simple majority.

But secret balloting could invite sabotage from malcontent Democrats. In 2013, squabbling Democrats doomed their own candidates. Lawmakers ultimately resorted to voting Giorgio Napolitano into an unprecedented second term. Napolitano, 89, resigned this month.

Opposition leader and former Premier Silvio Berlusconi had pledged to support archrival Renzi's election law reform aimed at producing more stable governments. But Berlusconi opposes Mattarella, who decades ago raised conflict-of-interest concerns after the media mogul jumped into politics. Mattarella also protested legislation that helped Berlusconi transform his fledgling business of local TV channels into a media empire including Italy's three main private TV networks.

The risk for Renzi is that Berlusconi might now renege on the pledge of support.

`'It's evident that the reforms have become more complicated," because of Renzi's pick of Mattarella, said Nunzia De Girolamo, a lawmaker formerly in Berlusconi's fold.

Berlusconi, forced out of the Senate by a tax fraud conviction, has been trying to stay influential in politics.

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