ROME - Italy's Parliament began casting votes Thursday for a new president to take the place of the incumbent Giorgio Napolitano, whose term expires next month.
The election of a new president could be the first step toward solving a political impasse that has gripped Italy since February's general election left a three-way split between the right, the left and a wild-card party.
The presidential voting process is open to 1,007 elected representatives: the 630 deputies in the lower house, 315 senators plus four senators-for-life, and 58 regional delegates.
The secret ballot is taking place inside the Chamber of Deputies, or lower house of Parliament.
Usually the senators vote first, then the deputies, then the regional delegates. They can vote for any citizen over 50 with full civil and political rights.
After counting for the first round wrapped up, former trade union leader Franco Marini was in the lead with 521 votes but short of the two-thirds majority, or 672 votes, needed to win the presidency.
The center-left coalition led by politician Pier Luigi Bersani and the center-right coalition of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appeared to be coming together to back Marini.
This would indicate a degree of cooperation between the two blocs, which might allow some kind of alliance to be formed.
In second place was Stefano Rodota, a former Italian Communist Party lawmaker and law professor, with 240 votes.
Former Turin Mayor Sergio Chiamparino received 41 votes. Berlusconi's ex-wife, Veronica lario, received one vote, despite expressing no desire to be president.
According to the Italian Constitution, a two-thirds majority of the electors is needed in the first three rounds of voting. From the fourth session onward, the bar is lowered to an absolute majority, equal to 504 votes.
A second round of voting will take place later Thursday.
Napolitano's seven-year term expires on May 15.
While the Italian presidency is largely a ceremonial role, it can become a critical one in times of political crisis.
The issue has been that, under the constitution, the Italian president cannot dissolve Parliament and call for new elections in the last six months of his mandate.
The election of a new president could help move Italy out of its current political gridlock.
Bersani fared the best in the February elections by leading a leftist coalition dominated by his Democratic Party to a small majority in the lower house of Parliament, but has been unable to form a government.
Power in the Senate, where it counts, was divided between Bersani and Berlusconi's center-right coalition, anchored by his party, Popolo della Liberta, or People of Freedom.
Bersani and Berlusconi are archrivals who have previously indicated they will not work together. The wild-card party of Beppe Grillo, the grass-roots Five-Star Movement, will also not enter into an alliance.
CNN's Hada Messia and Ben Wedeman reported from Rome, and Laura Smith-Spark reported and wrote from London.
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