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Monday December 9, 2013 MYT 2:04:36 AM
Monday December 9, 2013 MYT 2:05:58 AM
by steve scherer
Florence mayor Matteo Renzi (2nd L) poses with young supporters during a political meeting in Turin December 6, 2013. REUTERS/Giorgio Perottino
ROME (Reuters) - Italians cast votes on Sunday in a primary election that is likely to install charismatic Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi as leader of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), the largest bloc in the fragile ruling coalition.
The 38-year-old Renzi is the overwhelming favourite in a three-way race that will inevitably have an impact on Prime Minister Enrico Letta, a PD member who did not run, and the future of a party with a history of deep divisions.
Renzi has bluntly criticised the party's traditional left-wing leaders and the government's failure to make major economic reforms amid the longest recession in six decades, leaving some wondering if he will destabilise Letta's administration.
Voting - open to all Italians aged 16 and over, and not just party members - began in the morning, and by 5 p.m. (1600 GMT) 1.95 million people had cast ballots, the PD said. The primary ends at 8 p.m. and the first partial results are expected to trickle out an hour later.
If he emerges triumphant, Renzi will not join the government, but is likely to lead the PD into the next election as its candidate for prime minister.
The Florence mayor is a dynamic speaker, sometimes compared to Britain's Tony Blair, who has no connections to the old-style left and who has urged "scrapping" the former PD leadership and policies, making him popular even among centre-right voters, polls have shown.
Heading into the primary, Renzi's support was 20 points above his nearest rival, the 52-year-old Gianni Cuperlo, a former communist, and even further ahead of the 38-year-old Web-savvy Pippo Civati, Tecne polling institute said last week.
With the centre-right in disarray after former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's tax-fraud conviction and a subsequent party split, Renzi has the opportunity to recast the PD to attract some disillusioned right-wing voters.
Lower taxes - a warhorse for Berlusconi for two decades - are a central part of his programme, as are promises to change the electoral law and overhaul labour rules.
"GOVERNMENT WILL LAST"
Two weeks ago, Renzi said that if he won the primary he would call on the government to step up its reform efforts or else declare it "finished". But few, even among his loyalists in parliament, say it would be to Renzi's advantage to seek elections now, as he needs time to unify the party behind him.
For his part, Letta has insisted that the primary will make his government stronger, and Renzi and the premier will meet as early as Monday, government and party sources told Reuters.
"The government will last until at least 2015, if not longer," one source close to Renzi told Reuters.
But after the primary Renzi may have to tone down his outspoken rhetoric if he is to conquer the support of the PD, a party formed by fusing former communists and the left wing of the centrist Christian Democrats.
Apart from many still-pending economic reforms, the government faces an unpredictable new challenge following last week's move by the Constitutional Court to reject parts of the current voting law.
The ruling leaves Italy with a proportional voting structure that would virtually guarantee short-lived coalitions and worsen the stalemate that has afflicted the system in recent years. It will take careful negotiations to build support, also outside the PD, for new election rules.
Though Renzi appears to be heading for a decisive primary victory with the general public, inside the party he will still need to build support of those suspicious of his unabashed ambition, his centrist past and his forceful and unorthodox - for the left - media presence.
Earlier this year, Renzi went on a TV talent show popular with teenagers and broadcast by Berlusconi's network. Dressed in a black leather jacket, at one point he gave a thumbs-up that earned him the nickname "Fonzie", a reference to the laid-back hero of the U.S. sitcom "Happy Days".
Renzi embraced it, posing in a leather jacket for a magazine and explaining: "I want everyone to hear my message".
(Additional reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
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