The Italian Parliament elected an 80-year-old former communist to be president on Wednesday, paving the way for a government headed by center-left leader Romano Prodi to be formed within days.

Giorgio Napolitano, a widely respected senator-for-life, was chosen during the fourth round of voting by some 1,000 electors, including lawmakers from the two houses of parliament and regional representatives.

CountryWatch: Italy

He was proclaimed Italy's new president by the head of the lower Chamber of Deputies, Fausto Bertinotti, after winning 543 votes — well above the minimum 505 necessary for victory. A long found of applause erupted in Parliament.

The vote puts Prodi a step closer to forming a government, following his narrow victory in April 9-10 parliamentary elections.

The head of state is a largely ceremonial figure who has the task of giving mandates to try to put together new governments. Outgoing President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi had declined to do so as his seven-year-term was running out, preferring to leave that task to his successor.

Prodi said Napolitano, who is the first former communist to become president, would represent all Italians, even if the center-right didn't support him in the vote. Outgoing Premier Silvio Berlusconi urged Napolitano to be even-handed in carrying out his functions.

"We hope that he carries out the role that the constitution assigns him with impartiality," Berlusconi said minutes after the voting.

Voting for a president began Monday, but no candidate won the necessary two-thirds in the first three rounds of balloting. By the fourth round, the margin for victory dropped to an absolute majority. With the center-left united behind Napolitano, his win had been expected.

Napolitano's credentials include stints as parliament speaker — between 1992-94 — and minister of interior in the first government headed by Prodi between 1996-98.

He was always known for his moderate, pro-Western stance, and he was among the biggest supporters of the reform that led Communists to change the party's name and drop the hammer-and-sickle symbol.

Earlier Wednesday, Prodi told reporters that he expected to obtain a mandate between Sunday and Tuesday, and that a confidence vote was likely by May 23.

Napolitano also was optimistic before the vote, saying that as president he would be above the political fray.

Some members in Berlusconi's alliance praised the well-respected Napolitano and even said they might break ranks and support him. But the final count showed that they largely united against him.

The head of state is traditionally seen as a unifying figuring in Italy.