ROME (AFP) - Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano will give a mandate to form a government on Friday as the country hopes for a leader who has what it takes to end a political deadlock caused by inconclusive elections.
Mr Napolitano's decision comes after two days of intense talks with leaders of the parties to get a parliamentary majority behind a new cabinet and overcome a stalemate that has left the eurozone's third largest economy in political limbo.
The centre-left, led by ex-communist Pier Luigi Bersani, won the Feb 24-25 elections but failed to secure enough votes in the upper house for the majority it needs to govern.
The deep division between Italy's political parties over how to proceed has revived fears the country could plunge back into the debt crisis, just as a bitter standoff over a bailout for Cyprus sends tremors throughout the euro zone.
In a surprise move on Thursday, Mr Bersani appeared to have reappraised a previous refusal to work with the centre-right. He suggested his party might back a government led by someone other than himself, saying he merely hoped to "lend a hand" with forming a government.
The demand for political stability came not just from Italians "but from Europe, which is attentively and anxiously watching us", he said.
Bersani had previously excluded a grand coalition with his arch-rival Silvio Berlusconi - a scandal-tainted three-time prime minister involved in several court cases.
Mr Berlusconi, whose centre-right coalition came a very close second in the February vote, said he had told Mr Napolitano that his party was open to a coalition government which would push economic measures that enjoyed broad support.
On Thursday, Mr Bersani, a former Communist, appeared to open up to the idea of working with Mr Berlusconi. He could "propose a mechanism" for government if the other parties agreed to two conditions, he said: reforming the complicated electoral system and halving the number of deputies.
The left has been making overtures to the Five Star Movement, a new protest party that gathered millions of votes from Italians fed up with austerity and the perks enjoyed by politicians.
Led by ex-comedian Beppe Grillo, it made major inroads at the February vote and is now the biggest single party in parliament - though still smaller than the two main coalitions.
The movement has repeatedly rejected Mr Bersani's approaches however, a move that could end up helping Mr Berlusconi's bid for a role in the new government.
The outspoken Grillo called on Mr Napolitano to give the anti-politics movement a mandate to govern, though analysts say this is highly unlikely given the task since it came third in the elections.
Political observers have said the mandate is likely to go to Mr Bersani, despite his drop in popularity after appearing to give away a large lead over the centre-right in the run-up to the elections.
Analysts say the only other option would be a government with non-political figures similar to the one led by Mr Mario Monti, a former European commissioner and economics professor, installed after Mr Berlusconi's ouster in November 2011.
Such a government, which could only be temporary, would be charged with taking on some of austerity-laden Italy's most pressing economic problems, and reforming the complex electoral law widely blamed for the current impasse.
Possible candidates touted by Italian media for the role are former anti-mafia prosecutor and Senate speaker Pietro Grasso; Mr Fabrizio Saccomanni, the director general of the Bank of Italy; the country's Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri; and former European commissioner Emma Bonino.
Whoever gets the top job will face not only delicate negotiations with Italy's parties, but a rapidly evolving and tense situation with India.
On Thursday, Italy said two marines on trial for murder in India would return to the country by Friday, a stunning turnaround after Rome earlier insisted they would not go back.
Experts say that whatever the outcome, the country will likely be forced to return to the polls within a few months or a year at most.