Italian President Giorgio Napolitano will resign “in the coming hours,” Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Tuesday.
In a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Renzi saluted the Italian head of state as a “committed European, who will leave office just in the coming hours.”
Speculation has been mounting for weeks about who will emerge as Napolitano’s successor. Parliament is due to start voting on it within two weeks, and there are expectations that the process could be completedly quickly.
Renzi, whose Democratic Party (PD) will play a pivotal role in the election, said in Strasbourg that the ideal candidate should be “a very high level figure” who could act as a wise and impartial arbiter.
Several left-of-centre figures have been tipped as possibilities, including former PD leader and Rome mayor Walter Veltroni, Turin mayor and former minister Piero Fassino, and Sergio Mattarella, a constitutional court judge.
Ensuring a smooth election will be a key test of Renzi’s leadership. The previous presidential election, in 2013, was chaotic, and ended when politicians begged a reluctant Napolitano to stay on for a second term because they could not agree on a successor.
Napolitano is an elderly PD figure. At 89, he is keen to retire, after almost nine years in office which he described in a farewell speech two weeks ago as “long and tormented.”
He led the country through four changes of government, two general elections, and a near-default crisis in late 2011 that was resolved after he called on technocrat Mario Monti to replace the scandal-weakened Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister.
Over the past weeks, Napolitano has repeatedly said that his resignation was imminent, but he never set a date for it. According to media reports, he was going to quit on Wednesday.
In the period between Napolitano’s resignation and the appointment of a successor, Senate speaker Pietro Grasso is slated to act as temporary president.
Speaking to reporters in Rome, Napolitano said he was “happy to go back home.”
“Here life is good, everything is very beautiful, but it is a bit like a prison,” he said outside the presidential Quirinale palace, once a residence for popes. “At home I will be happy, and I will go for walks,” he added.
As a former president, Napolitano will be given a life-long seat in the Senate, and will be eligible to take part in the election of his successor, along with more than 1,000 national and regional lawmakers.
Italian presidents act as national figureheads. But their role is not just ceremonial: they can dissolve parliament and call early elections, they broker government coalition talks and nominate prime ministers.
They can also veto legislation if they deem it unconstitutional, and head the army and the judiciary. In exceptional circumstances, they can waive or reduce the sentences of people convicted by the courts.