Former Italian PM Letta takes helm of fractious Democrats

FILE PHOTO: Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta gestures during a news conference at Chigi Palace in Rome, February 12, 2014. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

ROME (Reuters) - Former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta urged the Democratic Party (PD) to end infighting and come together before the next national election as he took up the leadership of the troubled centre-left group on Sunday.

His appointment comes after former party secretary Nicola Zingaretti quit abruptly saying he was "ashamed" of internal wrangling, leaving the PD, which supports Mario Draghi's national unity government, in turmoil.

"Our politics should be summarised in two terms that seem very far from each other: soul and screwdriver", Letta, 54, said in his speech before his appointment as party secretary.

"We need to put them together and never take them apart. If we only put our soul, our ideas will never make progress".

With 860 votes in favour, 2 against and 4 abstained, Letta, the only candidate for the position, becomes the ninth leader of the PD, which he helped to found in 2007.

He returns to frontline politics after heading a coalition in 2013-2014 that combined centre-left and centre-right parties and from which he was booted out of office by party rival Matteo Renzi.

In his hour-long speech, in which he cited Pope Francis and French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Letta called on the party to renew itself, opening its doors to possible future alliances, and ridding itself of internal politics.

The party has in recent years struggled, losing touch with its voters and ceding ground to centre-right groups in regions where it was historically deep-rooted. It has also been weakened by the infighting.

"We are the engine of the Draghi government and we must prepare what comes after, when we will go to elections, and we have to build a new centre-left, with the initiative and the leadership of the PD," Letta said.

He said he would talk to all leftist and centrist parties, including the 5-Star Movement, in coming weeks.

A moderate and a pro-European, Letta said his agenda would focus on the unemployed, women, and youth.

He said he would work to lower the right to vote age to 16, from the current 18 - and would push for a controversial law granting citizenship to children who were born in Italy to foreign parents of immigrants to be proposed again in parliament.

(Reporting by Giulia Segreti; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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