Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Thursday backed a little-known Constitutional Court judge, whose brother was slain by the mafia, to be Italy's next president.
White-haired Sicilian Sergio Mattarella, 73, will be supported by Renzi's ruling Democratic Party in a multi-round election to produce a successor to the recently retired Giorgio Napolitano on Saturday, the premier said ahead of an inconclusive first vote.
"Above all Sergio is a man of the law, a man of the battle against the mafia," Renzi said.
"I hope we can call him Mr President on Saturday morning."
Napolitano, 89, stepped down earlier this month saying he needed to rest. The respected statesman had been prevailed upon to begin a second mandate as head of state after parliament was unable to agree on a successor to him in 2013.
Renzi's declaration of support for Mattarella was unanimously approved by PD lawmakers on a show of hands.
They account for 415 of the 1,009-member electoral college electing the new president.
As expected, most of the ballots cast in Thursday's first round of voting were left blank with no candidate in a position to secure the two-thirds majority required.
Second and third round votes are scheduled for Friday but the serious voting is only expected in the fourth, when the requirement for victory drops to a simple majority.
- Deal or no deal? -
The run-up to the vote has been dominated by speculation over whether Renzi had done some sort of deal with Silvio Berlusconi, the disgraced former premier and media tycoon whose Forza Italia (FI) party is the second biggest force in the college.
But the decision to back Mattarella, who distanced himself from Italy's centre-right because of his distaste for Berlusconi, was widely interpreted as Renzi turning his back on a pact with the disgraced media tycoon which has helped him get key labour market and electoral law reforms through parliament.
Paolo Romani, FI's leader in the Senate, denounced Renzi's move as "a power play that we regard as unacceptable."
In 1990, Mattarella was one of five ministers who resigned in protest over a new media law that critics said had been tailor-made to suit Berlusconi's television interests.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing Northern League, also rejected Renzi's man, dismissing him as a "Catto-Comunista." (communist Catholic)
- Mafia killing -
Now a member of Renzi's broad church centre-left party, Mattarella is a former Christian Democrat from Sicily who began his 25-year parliamentary career in 1983. That was three years after his elder brother, Piersanti, then the island's regional president, was killed by the mafia for resisting their control of the construction trade.
Renzi said this tragic family history would make the election of Mattarella a comforting signal for the families of the victims or organised crime.
"I would like this to be like a kind of caress from the political world to them, a gesture of affection, closeness and respect," the premier said.
Previously a legal academic, the bespectacled Mattarella has served in several ministerial roles in both centre-right and centre-left governments, including stints in charge of education and defence.
He has been a constitutional judge since 2011.
The presidential electoral college is made up of Italy's Senators, members of the lower-house Chamber of Deputies and 58 representatives of the regions.
A two-thirds majority is required to produce a winner on the first three rounds of voting.
A simple majority, or 505 votes, is sufficient in the fourth.
Prior to Renzi's announcement, the supposed frontrunners in the race had included Giuliano Amato, a former Socialist premier, and current finance minister Piercarlo Padoan.
All the candidates touted by the press as having a serious chance are men, despite polls showing a majority of Italians believe the country's 12th President should be a woman.
Former European Commissioner Emma Bonino had been seen as one of the favourites but withdrew from the race earlier this month when she announced she was battling lung cancer.