ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s 89-year-old President Giorgio Napolitano said on Wednesday that he would step down soon because of his age, leaving Prime Minister Matteo Renzi facing a delicate political challenge to replace him.
After dropping hints for months, Napolitano began the president’s annual end-year address by saying he was speaking also to his successor, who would “soon” take his place.
“I’m about to step down, to resign as the constitution expressly allows,” he said. “I’ve reached an age that brings with it growing limitations and difficulties for me to do my institutional duties, which are complex and very demanding.”
While he did not say exactly when he would go, he is widely expected to tender his resignation in January when Italy completes its handover of the rotating European Union presidency.
If Renzi cannot steer an acceptable candidate through the complicated presidential election process, it will raise doubts about his ability to push through economic reforms and planned changes to the constitution and electoral system. That would fuel speculation about early elections, adding to the political uncertainty surrounding the euro zone.
The Italian head of state holds wide but loosely defined powers, including appointing prime ministers, and can veto legislation as well as using the office’s moral weight to influence the political agenda.
Napolitano, a former communist respected in Europe and Washington who first took office in 2006, reluctantly agreed to a second term last year after a deadlocked election threatened to leave Italy politically adrift, but said he would not serve the full seven years.
Months of speculation about potential successors have thrown up names ranging from European Central Bank President Mario Draghi to current Economy Minis-ter Pier Carlo Padoan or Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti.