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ROME (Reuters) - As Italy faces a deep political crisis, the fate of the country is in the hands of an octogenarian former communist only weeks from retirement.
Under Italy's constitution, President Giorgio Napolitano, 87, is charged with trying to find the way out of an intractable impasse caused by a huge protest vote in the Feb 24-25 election, which saw no group emerge with enough support to govern.
The task is exceedingly difficult, but if anybody can succeed it is probably Napolitano, who enjoys both huge respect and popularity, and has shown skill in navigating previous major storms in Italy.
In fact after an election in which Italians vented their rage against the politicians, he may be the only traditional political figure left who commands much respect at all.
Napolitano has stepped into the breach in a moment of emergency before, in November 2011, when Italy faced a perilous debt crisis. He engineered the replacement of scandal-plagued premier Silvio Berlusconi with technocrat Mario Monti.
But things are more complicated now. Napolitano is now at the end of his seven-year term and must be replaced by mid-May.
Given that the crisis could take weeks to resolve, it is possible that whoever he finally chooses to be prime minister could be sworn in by his successor in a situation which would be bizarre even by Italian standards.
"It would be as if a young woman promised in marriage arrived at the altar to find that her husband is different from her fiance," said commentator Michele Ainis in the Corriere della Sera daily.
The role of the Italian president is only loosely-defined but Napolitano has carved himself an unusually powerful role, by leveraging his popularity and authority with public statements and leaks of his views which get front page cover.
This is combined with an uncompromising patriotism and respect for the constitution.
He has underlined that he is unable to begin consultations to resolve the current crisis until after the new parliament sits, expected around March 15, while stating that Italy's political vacuum does not threaten a new euro zone crisis.
He has also expressed his opposition to a snap new election, saying that in any case he cannot dissolve parliament at the end of his mandate.
On Tuesday, Italian officials leaked that Napolitano was considering appointing a technocrat government led by a non-political figure.
This may be a way of applying pressure to the three main forces who emerged from the election - the centre left of Pier Luigi Bersani, Berlusconi's centre right and the surging populist 5-Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo - to quit squabbling and be more flexible in agreeing on a government.
Napolitano is expected to indulge in more vigorous head banging when the politicians line up to meet him in formal consultations after March 15.
The leaks about a technocrat government on Tuesday seemed to assume that Bersani, who is expected to get the first mandate as leader of the biggest group in parliament, would fail - something also widely expected by analysts.
Gianfranco Pasquino, politics professor at the University of Bologna, told Reuters he expected Bersani to be unable to overcome the trenchant opposition from Grillo to any government led by him. However, this would not be the end of the game.
"A lot depends on the imagination, the prestige and the capabilities of the president. Napolitano has been excellent so far and he still has a couple of cards to play. We will see."
Pasquino believes a different, younger centre-left leader could be more palatable to Grillo who has so far said he would not support a vote of confidence for any government led by a traditional party, although his movement could support individual laws.
The colourless Bersani is seen in many quarters to have thrown away the election after commanding a 10-point opinion poll lead back in December and he could be under pressure to step down as leader of the Democratic Party (PD).
There is increasing talk that he could be replaced by Matteo Renzi, the 37-year-old mayor of Florence who unsuccessfully challenged him last year and who is popular across party lines although not with the PD leftwing.
Bringing in Renzi would be a "fantastic move" said Pasquino. "But I do not know if the PD are shrewd enough to do that and Renzi may not want to burn himself at this point."
Napolitano may also have increased his chances of finding a solution to the crisis by building a bridge to Grillo.
During a visit to Germany last week, he cancelled a dinner with opposition chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck after he described Grillo and Berlusconi as "clowns".
"We respect and naturally we demand respect, for our country," Napolitano said in an emotional speech.
Grillo, who had not spared Napolitano from the criticism he levelled at all politicians during the campaign, responded warmly, saying he recognised him as "my president".
Despite his former long career as a senior official in the defunct Communist Party, Napolitano's blend of natural dignity and the common touch have given him a unique status in Italy, even among the country's dominant conservative voting bloc.
His humanity has further endeared him to Italians and he has increasingly worn his heart on his sleeve as his mandate draws to an end, frequently choking up in public. He stifled a sob when defending Italy's honour during his visit to Germany.
The current crisis is far from what Napolitano would have wanted. His original intention was to call the election in April, giving him time to stand down and hand the task of choosing a new government to the next president.
But this plan was blown when Monti resigned in December against Napolitano's wishes following withdrawal of parliamentary support by Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party.
Napolitano let it be known that he also disagreed with his former protege's decision to enter the election, where he mounted a disappointing and unsuccessful campaign and burned his own chances of becoming the next head of state.
Whatever Napolitano's own feelings about the way things have turned out, he is not letting them weaken his determination to solve the complex crisis before bowing out.
"For someone in the middle of a war, he is in good spirits and is holding up remarkably well," said an official close to the president, who wanted to remain anonymous.
Writing by Barry Moody; Additional reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Peter Graff